A Japanese space probe carrying dust samples from an asteroid has landed in the South Australian outback.
The probe landed just before midnight (CST) on Sunday night, the Australian Science Media Centre confirmed.
After travelling six billion kilometres in seven years, the Hayabusa explorer incinerated on re-entry after jettisoning a capsule expected to contain the first asteroid dust ever collected, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.
The capsule parachuted to Earth within the Woomera Prohibited Area, a remote military zone 485km northwest of Adelaide. Scientists will retrieve the capsule in the daylight on Monday, and it will then be sealed in an airtight vessel and taken to Japan for study.
Hayabusa, the $US200 million ($A235.74 million) project launched in 2003, landed on the asteroid in 2005 and is believed to have collected samples of material from the surface that may shed light on the solar system’s origin and evolution.
Scientists hope to study how and when the asteroid was formed, its physical properties, what other bodies it may have been in contact with, and how solar wind and radiation have affected it.
Hayabusa was originally due to return to Earth in 2007, but a series of technical glitches — including a deterioration of its ion engines, broken control wheels, and the malfunctioning of batteries — forced it to miss its window to manoeuvre into the Earth’s orbit until this year.
If Hayabusa is indeed carrying asteroid samples, it would be only the fourth space sample return in history — including moon matter collected by the Apollo missions, comet material by Stardust, and solar matter from the Genesis mission.
Preliminary analysis of the samples will be carried out by the team of Japanese, American and Australian scientists in Japan. After one year, scientists around the world can apply for access to the asteroid material for research.