Posted on behalf of David Cyranoski
Eureka! Well, not quite yet. Today scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced that they had found some dust in the recovery capsule from the Hayabusa asteroid mission. It would be the first time that planetary scientists and astrobiologists had asteroid matter in hand, but tests now need to be done to determine whether the dust was collected from the asteroid or whether it snuck in some time on the capsule’s high speed return into the Earth’s atmosphere, before landing in an Australian desert. Test results are expected in August.
The mission itself is already considered a success. It saw the spacecraft fly to Itokawa, the asteroid 300 million kilometers away, and then return the recovery capsule (right) back to Earth.
It would not be the first time since the Apollo mission, as some media outlets have suggested, that a sample has been returned from space. Stardust came back with comet dust in 2007; Genesis, though it crashed, brought back solar particles in 2004; and in the late 1970s, Soviet robotic lunar missions returned samples. But it is by far the longest and most challenging round-trip transport mission, a feat for which JAXA is now trying to get Guinness record book recognition.
And this dust (inside the capsule, left) would be special. It would give scientists the first first-hand look at the composition of an asteroid, something that has hitherto been surmised from remote sensing or by looking at meteorites. But meteorites, burning through the Earth’s atmosphere and contaminated by contact with Earth, do not offer the pristine composition of this sample which, it is hoped, was captured on site, stored in a vacuum for its return journey, and now being analyzed in what a NASA scientist told Nature is the best sample curation center in the world.
Dust from asteroids, thought to be relatively unadulterated survivors from the time when our Solar System was formed, will help scientists understand that process and could even shed light on the origins of life.