14 Jun 2010

Spacecraft lands in Australian outback

9:25 am on 14 June 2010

A Japanese spacecraft thought to be carrying the first asteroid material to be brought to Earth has landed in in South Australia's outback.

It caused a bright fireball over southern Australia when it re-entered the atmosphere early on Monday morning.

The Hayabusa explorer incinerated on re-entry after jettisoning a capsule believed to contain asteroid dust.

The capsule parachuted to Earth within the Woomera Prohibited Area, a military zone 485 kilometres northwest of Adelaide.

The capsule has been located and scientists will now have to determine whether it is intact, and whether it contains asteroid samples.

The mission was launched in 2003, and the capsule should have returned from the Itokawa asteroid in 2007.

It was delayed because of a succession of technical problems and may not have collected any rock fragments, because there was a malfunction on the spacecraft's capture mechanism.

New Zealand scientist Trevor Ireland, now with the Australian National University, told Morning Report the landing was a spectacular sight.

He says that if there is asteroid dust in the capsule, tests will start in a couple of weeks and could take a year.