This canister came from the Japanese spacecraft Habayusa, the first rocket to travel to an asteroid and back. It might look empty, but inside are dust particles that came from the asteroid . . . hopefully.
Although Habayusa did succeed in bringing back images and information from the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, it's still unclear whether it managed to bring back any materials from the rock. Jaxa, the Japanese space agency, had bankrolled the 200 million dollar project, and they enjoyed pretty much nothing but trouble for their efforts.
As we explained last year, the probe barely made it back to Earth at all, experiencing multiple engine failure, losing contact with Mission Control, and even getting hit with a solar flare. Ultimately, it crashed down two years late, and now a big part of the success of the project hinges on whether those tiny dust particles actually came from Itokawa.
The photos that Jaxa has released don't exactly inspire confidence that this is a major find, but scientists both in charge of and observing the project remain optimistic. Professor Trevor Ireland, associate director for Earth chemistry at The Australian National University in Canberra says the canister doesn't look contaminated, so he feels there's a good chance of indeed finding grains that can tell us much about the asteroid.
Still, there's a snag - the capture mechanism that was meant to gather up asteroid rock fragments malfunctioned at the precise moment it was meant to operate, so there's no reason why anything got in there at all. The Jaxa scientists say Habayusa certainly would have kicked up a lot of dust when it landed on Itokawa, and that dust must have somehow seeped inside the canister. It might seem like somewhat shaky reasoning, but given the quixotic nature of the Habayusa mission so far, it seems only appropriate it would end like this.