Japan's unmanned space probe Hayabusa (peregrine falcon) returned from a seven-year, 6-billion-kilometer trip to the asteroid Itokawa. Although its main body burned up while re-entering Earth's atmosphere, a capsule released from it landed in the desert near Woomera in southern Australia on the night of June 13 and was sent to Japan. The round-bottomed, pan-shaped capsule, 30 cm in diameter and 15 cm in height, may contain sand from the asteroid.
Even if Hayabusa failed to collect any material from the asteroid, its journey is a praiseworthy space saga in which a project team at the Japan Aeronautical Exploration Agency (JAXA) demonstrated its ingenuity and perseverance. Hayabusa achieved the first-ever, round-trip voyage of a spacecraft to a heavenly body other than the moon.
Hayabusa also returned from the longest voyage in space (2,592 days). The previous record of 2,534 days had been set by the Stardust mission of NASA (U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Launched in February 1999, Stardust collected cosmic dust and returned in January 2006. Despite Hayabusa's feat, however, the fiscal 2010 budget for Hayabusa's successor mission had been slashed. The government must immediately work out a better strategy for Japan's space exploration program and basic science research.