“Asteroids Rock!”

As the BBC notes, Japanese scientists are confident they have successfully retrieved the first samples ever grabbed from the surface of an asteroid, Itokawa, after recovering a capsule from the Hayabusa spacecraft in the Australian outback.

The Japanese space agency (Jaxa) says the capsule looks to be intact.

The return was the culmination of a remarkable seven-year adventure, which saw Hayabusa visit asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and attempt to pluck dust from its surface before firing its engines for home.

The $200m mission encountered many technical problems, from being hit by a solar flare to experiencing propulsion glitches. But each time an issue came up, the Japanese project team found an elegant solution to keep Hayabusa alive and bring it back to Earth – albeit three years late.

Discovery News hosts a stunning slide-show of Hayabusa’s 7-year asteroid odyssey

And here’s a wondrous image of Itokawa taken by Hayabusa on the landing and sampling operation on Nov 20, 2005.  The shadow of the spacecraft is highlighted.

As the BBC’s Spaceman reminds us, “Both Europe and the US are also planning major encounters.”

First up will be the European Space Agency’s (Esa) Rosetta probe, which is due to pass just 3,160km from Asteroid Lutetia on 10 July. The 100km-plus-wide Lutetia is a bit of a strange beast.

Earth-based observations had at first classified it as a primitive object, little changed since its formation (a so-called C-type asteroid). Further measurements then spied an unexpectedly high metal composition on its surface, suggesting it might have undergone a greater degree of evolution than previously thought.

Rosetta will just race by. Its main quarry is an unpronounceable comet (67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko) which it will meet out near Jupiter in 2014, but the opportunity to test its instruments on this fascinating lump of space rock is too good an opportunity to pass up.

And Nasa’s heading to some plutoids

Nasa’s Dawn spacecraft will be bearing down on the 530-km-wide Vesta asteroid this time next year.

The probe will be spending about 12 months at this rock before moving on to Ceres which, at 950km in diameter, is by far the largest and most massive body in the asteroid belt.

It is what they call a “dwarf planet” these days – the same classification we’re supposed to use now to describe Pluto.

Their sheer size means gravity has pulled these bodies into a spherical form, Ceres more so than Vesta.

The latter unfortunately has the look of a punctured football, the result of a colossal collision sometime its past that ripped a big chunk out of its south polar region.

The debris from that smash-up was sent far and wide. About one in 20 of the asteroids seen to fall to Earth are probably bits of Vesta.

Ceres and Vesta will make for interesting subjects. These really are evolved bodies – objects that have heated up and started to separate in distinct layers.

In the case of Vesta this probably means it has an iron core. For Ceres, scientists don’t think it got quite so hot, and it probably retains a lot of water, perhaps in a band of ice deep below the surface.

And here’s a NASAtelevision video of Hayabusa’s last moments, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere after releasing the sample capsule.