Like an expectant father pacing outside the delivery room, I am waiting for word about what Hayabusa has brought home to Earth.
Three weeks ago the small, saucer-shaped capsule blazed an incandescent trail across the Australian night sky before parachuting safely onto the ground. When a recovery team plucked it from the remote Woomera Prohibited Area the next morning, the capsule looked shiny-new, none the worse for wear after a seven-year journey to asteroid 25143 Itokawa and back. I was there to welcome it home, as part of a NASA-sponsored effort to record the reentry.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's recovery team whisked the 16-inch-wide (40-cm) capsule to its Sagamihara research facility, where two dozen scientists are hoping to find bits of asteroidal grit inside. It's being stored — and will be opened — inside an incredibly complex stainless-steel container specially designed for the task. The interior is sometimes kept under a vacuum or flooded with very clean nitrogen.
Then, and now, the question on the minds of all involved has been: What's inside?
Pulses raced today when JAXA announced that scientists have found small particles inside the container. "We are still unsure if those particles are something from [Itokawa] or from the Earth," the brief statement reported.
This is all very curious, because a scan of the capsule revealed that it picked up no particles larger than 1 mm when the spacecraft briefly alighted on Itokawa in November 2005.
So we still don't know whether the spacecraft successfully returned the first-ever sample after landing on an asteroid. (Of course, all of the 22,000 confirmed meteorites found to date are from asteroids — but with very few exceptions, such as Almahata Sitta, we don't know their exact sources.)
Michael Zolensky, a meteorite specialist from NASA's Johnson Space Center, is one of three Americans participating in the delicate work. "Everyone is going very slowly and carefully," he observes. "It will probably take 30 to 90 days before we know if there is asteroidal sample inside the canister, because we have to eliminate any possibility of contamination first."
I think Zolensky is just being cautious. After all, you'd think that JAXA engineers would have designed the capsule so that Australian dirt couldn't make its way inside when it parachuted to the ground. If those particles aren't from Itokawa, I'd be really surprised.
And so the wait continues.