A Japanese spacecraft is nearing the end of an epic mission in which it has made the first-ever collection of subsurface material from an asteroid in space.
As it approaches Earth this weekend, the Hayabusa2 probe will eject a small capsule containing the collected sample. The capsule will then travel approximately 135,000 miles before reaching the Australian outback, where it will be recovered by a team of scientists.
We hope that the collected samples, which, unlike previously collected samples, were protected from cosmic rays and other environmental conditions due to their location below the surface, will give scientists new insight into the origin and evolution of the solar system, as well as other potential discoveries.
The ambitious mission undertaken by JAXA – the Japanese equivalent of NASA – was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in the southwest of the country in December 2014.
Hayabusa2 reached the asteroid Ryugu in June 2018 after a three-and-a-half-year journey that traveled approximately 180 million miles.
In February 2019, the probe made the first of two landings on a 900-meter-wide asteroid, taking a rock sample from the surface to return to Earth via a capsule.
Preparations for the more difficult sampling procedure beneath the Ryugu surface began in April, when Hayabusa2 fired a two-kilogram “missile” into the asteroid to loosen rock particles. A few months later, the probe made a second landing to collect the material before transferring it to the capsule.
During the mission, JAXA also deployed two small rovers on the Ryugu surface to capture close-ups of space rocks and perform tasks such as studying its composition and measuring surface temperature.
As the mission is now in its final stages, all eyes are on December 6, when a capsule just 40 centimeters in diameter is due to fall into the Australian outback. The beacon emitted by the container will enable scientists to locate it shortly after their return.
Few people doubt JAXA’s ability to succeed in this last part of the process, as it did a similar feat in 2010, when the Hayabusa2 predecessor returned with surface samples (and not subsurface samples like Hayabusa2) of another distant asteroid.
And the work of Hayabusa2 is also not finished yet, because after the capsule was ejected by the probe, it will fly back into space again, heading for another distant asteroid on its journey, which is expected to take about 10 years.
NASA is now on a similar mission after it recently sampled rock from an asteroid more than 200 million miles from Earth. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe will begin its journey home in March 2021, and the capsule and its contents are expected to arrive on Earth in September 2023.