The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 successfully launched a small capsule on Saturday and sent it to Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues about the origin of the solar system and life on our planet, the country’s space agency said.
The capsule successfully detached from 220,000 kilometers in a difficult operation that required precise control, the Japanese Aviation Research Agency said. The capsule – just 40 centimeters in diameter – landed on Sunday in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomer, Australia.
“The capsule has been separated. Congratulations, ”said JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda.
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Hayabusa2 exited the asteroid Ryugu, some 300 million kilometers away, a year ago. After releasing the capsule, it moved away from Earth to capture photos of the capsule falling towards the planet as it set out on a new voyage to another distant asteroid.
About two hours later, JAXA reported that it had successfully redirected Hayabusa2 to a new mission when beaming personnel exchanged fist and elbow touches at the agency’s command center in Sagamihar, near Tokyo.
“We’ve successfully made it this far, and when we complete our last capsule retrieval mission, it will be perfect,” said mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa of the command center during the live broadcast.
People who gathered to watch the capsule separate at public screenings across Japan cheered for the success. “I am very pleased that the capsule has been successfully delivered. My heart was beating fast as I watched, ”said Ichiro Ryoko, a 60-year-old computer engineer who was observing at Tokyo Dome.
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The return of Hayabusa2 with the world’s first subsurface asteroid samples came weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe successfully captured samples of the Bennu asteroid’s surface. Meanwhile, China announced this week that its lunar lander collected underground samples and sealed them in a spacecraft for their return to Earth as developing nations in space compete on their missions.
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In the early hours of Sunday morning, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, briefly turned into a fireball as it re-entered the atmosphere 120 kilometers above Earth. About 10 kilometers above the parachute’s surface, the parachute was opened to slow its descent, and beacons were expected to be broadcast to indicate its location.
JAXA employees set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area to receive the signals. They will also use marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist with the search for and retrieval of the acetabular capsule.
Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who is in Woomera due to the capsule’s arrival, said he expected Ryugu samples to be similar to a meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison, Victoria for over 50 years ago.
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“The Murchison meteorite has opened a window to the origin of organic compounds on Earth because these rocks were discovered to contain simple amino acids as well as a large amount of water,” said Ireland. “We will investigate whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth during the formation of the Solar System, and whether they still remain intact on the asteroid.”
The researchers say they believe that the samples, especially those taken from beneath the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data that is unaffected by cosmic rays and other environmental factors. They are especially interested in analyzing organic materials in samples.
JAXA hopes to find clues about the distribution of materials in the solar system and their relationship to life on Earth. Yoshikawa, the mission leader, said 0.1 grams of dust would be enough to carry out all planned tests.
For Hayabusa2, this is not the end of the mission that began in 2014. Now he’s headed to a small asteroid named 1998KY26 on a journey that is expected to take 10 years one way for possible research, including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.
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His mission has so far been a complete success. He twice landed on Ryugu despite the unusually rocky surface of the asteroid and successfully collected data and samples during the 1.5 years spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.
During the first touchdown in February 2019, he collected samples of surface dust. During a more difficult mission in July this year, he collected underground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater he had created earlier by blowing up the asteroid’s surface.
Asteroids that orbit the sun but are much smaller than the planets are among the oldest objects in the solar system and can therefore help explain how the earth evolved.
Ryugu means “Dragon Palace” in Japanese, the name of a castle on the seabed in a Japanese folk tale.
Contributing to this report were contributing press writers Dennis Passa, Brisbane, Australia and Chisato Tanaka, Tokyo.
© 2020 The Canadian Press