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Sky over Australia to be lit up by returning asteroid probe

The Hayabusa probe was launched by Japan in 2003.

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On November 19, 2005, the spacecraft touched down on the surface of the Itokawa asteroid with its sample capturing device and attempted to collect a sampling of dust and pebbles, but the procedure did not go as planned. Mission scientists are convinced however, that there is a very good probability that some asteroid dust managed to swirl into Hayabusa's sampling chamber, so it was sealed.

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During its journey home, the spacecraft lost some attitude control and is now limping back to Earth and is scheduled to return to on Sunday.

Other spacecraft, notably Galileo and NEAR Shoemaker, have passed close to asteroids before, but the Hayabusa mission, if successful, will mark the first time that an asteroid sample is returned to Earth for analysis.

On Sunday, the 1,124 lb (510 kg) space probe will reenter the Earth's atmosphere. Since the reaction control system no longer functions, the reentry is expected to mimic the approach of an asteroid along with the sample reentry capsule, and scientists are predicting that the majority of the spacecraft will disintegrate as it flies through the atmosphere.

The sample reentry capsule, roughly the size of a basketball and weighing 39.6 pounds (18 kilograms), should be able to make it back to Earth intact, the scientists say.

Watch it Live

An attempt will be made to provide a live video feed of the Hayabusa reentry around 13:51 GMT.

The video will be chosen from cameras operated onboard NASA's DC-8 Airborne Laboratory by Jesse Carpenter and Greg Merkes of NASA Ames Research Center, or those operated by Ron Dantowitz, Marek Kozubal, James Brietmeyer and Brigitte Berman of Clay Center Observatory, or those operated by Mike Taylor and Jonathan Snively of Utah State University.

The video feed will be transmitted by the DC-8 aircraft via INMARSAT, though it may not be of high quality.

See it here at:

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

IN PICTURES: Asteroids