A Japanese spacecraft which orbited an asteroid for seven years has successfully landed at Woomera, Australia, possibly bringing with it the first asteroid surface samples, space agency officials said on Monday.
Hayabusa, launched on May 2003, probed the asteroid Itokawa about 300 million kilometres from Earth across the Sun, making an unprecedented round trip to an astronomical body other than the moon, officials at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, commonly known as JAXA said.
It has travelled some 6 billion kilometres, making about five circles around the Sun and surviving a series of technological problems that often threatened its return and put it three years behind schedule.
It is the first time a spacecraft has made contact with an asteroid and returned to Earth.
While the spacecraft itself burned out before touching the ground, a special heat-resistant capsule, possibly containing sand from Itokawa, landed in the desert around Woomera in southern Australia on Sunday, reported Kyodo.
Scientists are set to recover the round-bottomed pan-shaped capsule, 40 centimetres in diameter and 20 cm in height, hoping to find any substance from the asteroid that would provide information to help them understand the origin and evolution of the solar system.
So far, scientists have only managed to bring moon rocks back to Earth under the US Apollo programme.
Asteroids, sometimes referred to as celestial fossils, are believed to be records of the early stages of the solar system.
"The most important goal of Hayabusa was to go and come back," said Yasunori Matogawa, a senior JAXA official involved in the mission, adding Hayabusa's successful mission has put Japan ahead of the world in terms of comprehensive solar-system exploration technology.
The capsule will be taken to the JAXA facility in Sagamihara, near Tokyo, for analysis by scientists from Japan, Australia and the United States.