Japan asteroid probe to make historic return to Earth

SYDNEY, June 12, 2010 (AFP) – A tiny heatproof capsule which scientists hope contains some of the oldest dust in the universe will streak back to Earth and land in the Australian desert Sunday, ending a historic space mission. Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft is due to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere shortly before midnight (1400 GMT), completing a seven-year, five-billion-kilometre (three-billion-mile) journey to an ancient far-flung asteroid.

The car-sized probe became the world’s first spacecraft to land on and lift off a celestial body other than the moon after touching down on Itokawa, a “rubble-pile” asteroid 300 million kilometres distant, in September 2005.

If the landing is successful, Hayabusa will be the first space mission to have made physical contact with an asteroid and returned to Earth.

Its on-board devices showed Itokawa was between “several tens of millions and hundreds of millions” years old, and had broken away from an ancient celestial body formed in the Solar System’s most primitive stages.

Hayabusa blasted into space in May 2003 tasked with collecting samples from the asteroid’s surface, which it is believed could yield unprecedented information about the evolution of the Universe, and fire th