In July, Japanese scientists announced that they had found something inside Hayabusa's 40cm-wide sample return capsule, but it was far from certain as to what that "something" was. Was it dusty contamination from reentry? Or was it precious asteroid dust, the very thing the sample return mission set out to capture?
Now we have an answer.
The trouble-plagued Hayabusa did return asteroid dust. In fact, 1,500 particles of the stuff have been recovered so far.
"This is a world first and it is a remarkable accomplishment that brought home material from a celestial body other than the moon," Yoshiaki Takagu, Japanese science and technology minister, told a press conference announcing mission success.
On June 13, the Japanese mission came to a spectacular end. Slamming into the atmosphere after a 7-year round-trip, the spacecraft dazzled on re-entry, disintegrating and burning up over the Australian outback.
Before the fireworks however, the Hayabusa probe jettisoned a precious sample return capsule that reentered the atmosphere safely ahead of the doomed spacecraft to parachute to Earth.
Since that day, scientists have been patiently waiting to find out whether that capsule carried any precious cargo. And now, after six months of study, the Japanese space agency JAXA has confirmed everyone's wildest dreams: Hayabusa successfully completed its mission and brought dust from the 400 meter-wide asteroid Itokawa home.
After analysis, JAXA researchers have found iron-rich olivine and pyroxene particles mostly less than 10 microns across (1/5th the width of a human hair). This confirms the particles are indeed of extraterrestrial origin and not contamination from an Earth-based source.