A return capsule from the gimpy spacecraft — out of hydrazine ‘gas’ and maneuvering with just one of its four ion thrusters — is expected to land on 13 June in the Woomera Prohibited Area, a remote part of south Australia.
Whether the capsule has anything inside is still uncertain. Hayabusa made two attempts to land on the asteroid Itokawa after its launch in 2003, but mission scientists don’t know if it in fact scooped anything up.
If it did, and if the return capsule lands successfully, Hayabusa will be the first mission to gather bits of a fresh asteroid (we get meteorites all the time, but their provenance is varied, often unknown, and some asteroidal stuff would never survive the fall to Earth). The science embedded in those samples could have big implications over the perceived value of future asteroid sample return missions. US President Barack Obama last week talked about sending astronauts to an asteroid 15 years from now, and the University of Arizona’s Mike Drake is competing to send a NASA probe to one a lot sooner. His OSIRIS–REX proposal is one of three finalists to be the next New Frontiers mission.