Hayabusa, the $US200 million ($A235.74 million) project launched in 2003, landed on the asteroid in 2005 and is believed to have collected samples of material from the surface that may shed light on the solar system’s origin and evolution.
Scientists hope to study how and when the asteroid was formed, its physical properties, what other bodies it may have been in contact with, and how solar wind and radiation have affected it.
Hayabusa was originally due to return to Earth in 2007, but a series of technical glitches – including a deterioration of its ion engines, broken control wheels, and the malfunctioning of batteries – forced it to miss its window to manoeuvre into the Earth’s orbit until this year.
If Hayabusa is indeed carrying asteroid samples, it would be only the fourth space sample return in history – including moon matter collected by the Apollo missions, comet material by Stardust, and solar matter from the Genesis mission.
Preliminary analysis of the samples will be carried out by the team of Japanese, American and Australian scientists in Japan. After one year, scientists around the world can apply for access to the asteroid material for research.
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