Space probe returns after 7-year asteroid voyage

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A Japanese space probe landed in the Australian outback on Monday after a 7-year voyage to an asteroid, lighting up the night sky and bringing what scientists hope is a rock sample, witnesses said.

The Hayabusa probe blazed a spectacular trail as it came in to hit the ground at a blistering speed, ending a journey to the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa that began in 2003.

An Australian defense spokesman told Reuters scientists monitoring the probe’s return had confirmed it had landed and identified its location, but it would not be retrieved until daylight. Only then would it become clear if a capsule thought to contain the precious sample was intact.

Hayabusa, which means falcon in Japanese, landed on the irregularly shaped asteroid in 2005 and scientists think it managed to pick up a small sample of material. If successful, it would be the first time a spacecraft has brought such a sample back to Earth, other than from our own Moon.

Witnesses said the probe shone brilliantly as it moved across the southern winter sky over the Woomera weapons testing range in South Australia state, on schedule at around midnight (11:30 a.m. EDT on Sunday).

“It was like a shooting star with a starburst behind it. It was fantastic,” one witness told Reuters.

Teams from NASA were deployed to watch the craft’s return, along with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which sent the 500-kg probe on its mission.

Stretches of central Australia’s main north-south Stuart Highway were closed for safety reasons. The first people meant to see the probe include local Aboriginal elders, who are to make sure it has not damaged any sites sacred to the area’s indigenous people.

Scientists hope the probe’s visit to Itokawa will give them information about the formation of asteroids and thus the solar system. It is also a test for new technology which could be used to return other space samples to Earth in the future.

After recovery, the contents of the capsule are to be moved to Japan for analysis.

Editing by Janet Lawrence