On 13 June 2010, a Japanese spacecraft bearing pieces of another world parachuted down to Australian soil after a seven-year-long journey through deep space.
During its journey, the spacecraft, called Hayabusa, encountered the 530-metre-long asteroid called Itokawa in November 2005, and briefly landed on it. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) designed Hayabusa to collect samples of the asteroid’s surface. Hayabusa then landed at the Department of Defence’s remote Woomera Prohibited Area in the South Australian desert. Fifty years ago, Woomera was one of the most active rocket launch sites in the world. It is still the largest land-based test range on the planet.
Although Hyabusa was plagued by malfunctions after its departure from Itokawa, the controllers, in an impressive feat of ingenuity, managed to coax it home.
Upon retrieval, the capsule was packed inside a double layer of plastic bags filled with pure nitrogen gas for transport to Japan. Scanning electron microscope studies show that, despite a series of hitches with the mission, extraterrestrial particles from Itokawa did swirl into the spacecraft’s sample scoop. Handling the particles requires special skills and technologies that JAXA is developing.
“Australia is proud to support Japan in this world-first expedition,” says Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr. “The Australian Government is investing $48.6 million in the Australian space sector through its new Space Policy Unit and Australian Space Research Program. The return of the Hayabusa is one of the many activities the unit is supporting.”