Japan's Subaru telescope has released a series of photos it captured of the nation?s beloved asteroid probe Hayabusa as it streaked through the sky on its descent down to Earth on Sunday. The mosaic of photos also includes a special appearance by a spiral galaxy in the background.
The new batch of Hayabusa re-entry photos was released Wednesday. [Photos: Hayabusa's fiery Earth return.]
Hayabusa returned from a seven-year space journey, during which it landed on asteroid 25143 Itokawa and attempted to collect a precious sample of space rock dust. Scientists have not yet opened the sample canister to see if it succeeded.
The mission is popular among the Japanese people, with civilians even publishing photos of themselves dressed up as Hayabusa. The mission was launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2003.
Click here to see video of Hayabusa's dazzling re-entry.
While observing at the Subaru observatory on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, astronomer Masafumi Yagi and his team managed to maneuver the telescope just in time to catch Hayabusa before it disappeared in the southern twilight sky.
The capsule at that moment was a little less than halfway between moon and Earth. The astronomers took a series of five-second exposures on the telescope's camera ? spaced apart by 35-50 seconds ? through a special filter with the Suprime Cam instrument.
The images clearly show the spacecraft approaching Earth for its plunge through the atmosphere as it completed a round-trip journey of about 3.75 billion miles (6 billion km). The capsule was protected by a heat shield that insulated it from the fiery temperatures of re-entry.
- Gallery - Hayabusa: Japan's Asteroid Mission, Fiery Finale
- Graphic: How Japan's Hayabusa Asteroid Mission Worked
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Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the Space.com team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.