Japanese probe Hayabusa returns from space with a fistful of asteroid dustS

Today the space probe Hayabusa returned to Earth after seven years in space studying an asteroid. Already it has sent back hundreds of pictures, and has splashed down near Australia bearing chunks of the small asteroid Itokawa.

This is only the fourth time a spacecraft has brought back samples from celestial bodies (others include the Moon, Sun, and a comet). Itokawa is just a little over 2300 feet long and 1000 wide - as you can see from these images, it's sort of peanut-shaped.

Japanese probe Hayabusa returns from space with a fistful of asteroid dustS

According to the AP's Tanalee Smith:

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said it had confirmed the position of the fallen capsule and recovery would take place early Monday. It will be sealed in an airtight vessel and taken to Japan for study.

Hayabusa, the $200 million project launched by the Japanese space agency in 2003, landed on an 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.

Also, of course, it could contain the Andromeda Strain.

Photos and artist's rendering via AP/Japan Space Exploration Agency