JAXA’s asteroid mission Hayabusa has successfully returned to Earth, a few years later than planned. It burned up in the skies over south Australia at 14:51 BST, as planned, having first ejected the capsule that may or may not contain the first ever samples collected from the surface of an asteroid. That capsule has now been located, having parachuted safely to the ground.
The successful end to the mission belies its long and problematic history, which included batterings by solar flares, computer malfunctions and engine failures. At one point, the probe was considered lost and forever in orbit of the 500 m long potato shaped piece of rock it had intended to scrape the surface of.
However, having found a way to power the reluctant satellite back home (including with a little help from NASA) for a fiery fate, researchers, amateur astronomers and a NASA DC-8 tracking plane gathered to see whether or not the doomed thing would safely eject its payload before frying. The satellite took its final view of Earth (later reprocessed here). And here’s a video of what happened next. A series of images from that video can be seen here, taken from the owner of this site.
More spectacular images were grabbed from those in the area at the time. These images on the Planetary Society blog include a gif animation of the critical moments of the earlier video and a stunning shot of the streak of flame across the southern Australian sky, meanwhile this set of images shows the sample return capsule escaping from the disintegrating mothership.
But what of the NASA DC-8 plane? Well, they got their video too. It has been posted to this website, from where it made its way onto youtube:
…of course these are just the early shots, I’m sure lots more will pop out of the internet in the days ahead.