Japan space probe set for Australian outback return

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The Independent Online

A Japanese space probe which scientists hope will bring back a sample from an asteroid is due to return to Earth on schedule late today in the Australian outback, an Australian defence official said.

The Hayabusa probe is due to land around 14.00 GMT near the Woomera military range in the remote desert north of South Australia state.

The return will mark the end of a seven-year journey that has taken the probe to the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa and back. It landed on the asteroid twice in 2005 and scientists hope it may have captured a small sample from its surface.

If successful, it would be the first time a spacecraft has returned with samples from an asteroid or planet other than Earth's moon.

The probe was launched in 2003 by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which said yesterday Hayabusa - which means "falcon" in Japanese - was functioning well after completing its final manoeuvre earlier this month.

A spokesman for Australia's defence ministry said an initial party would fly out to find the 500 kg Hayabusa probe once instruments confirmed it had landed.

Among the first people to see it on its return will be local Aboriginal elders, who will fly out in a helicopter to check it has not damaged any sites sacred to the local indigenous people.

Stretches of central Australia's main north-south Stuart Highway will be closed for the probe's return, which will happen at blistering speed. Parachutes will slow it down after the probe jettisons a heat shield that will protect it during re-entry.

Itokawa is an irregularly shaped asteroid which measures just over 500 metres at its longest.

Scientists hope the probe will give them information about the formation of asteroids. The mission has also been a test for new technology which could be used to return other space samples to Earth in the future.