The Japanese space agency has found a capsule with the first rock samples from the surface of the asteroid, which scientists believe may provide clues about the origin of the solar system and life on our planet.
The spacecraft Hayabusa2 launched a small capsule on Saturday and sent it to Earth to deliver samples from the Ryugu asteroid, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles), the Japanese Space Research Agency (JAXA) said.
“The work on collecting the capsules at the landing site is complete,” the agency said in a tweet about four hours after the capsule landed.
“We’ve been practicing a lot for today … it ended up being safe.”
The return of the capsule with the world’s first subsurface samples of the asteroid came weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe successfully sampled the surface of the Bennu asteroid. Meanwhile, China announced this week that their lunar lander collected underground samples and sealed them in a spacecraft for return to Earth as developing nations in space compete on their missions.
I am very pleased that the capsules brought by Hayabus 2 after six years of space travel since its launch have been successfully recovered. We would like to pay tribute to the successful project manager, Professor Tsuda and all those involved, and we look forward to the continued success of the Hayabusa 2 as it embarked on a new exploration continuously.#Hayabusa 2 pic.twitter.com/RHiXyzZif1
– prime minister’s residence (@kantei) December 5, 2020
Early Sunday, the capsule briefly turned into a fireball as it reentered the atmosphere 120 km (75 miles) above Earth.
About 10 kilometers (6 miles) above the ground, a parachute was opened to slow its descent, and beacons were sent to indicate its location.
“It was great … It was a beautiful fireball and I was very impressed,” said Yuichi Tsuda, JAXA Hayabusa2 project manager, celebrating the successful return of the capsule and a safe landing from the command center in Sagamihar, near Tokyo.
“I have waited six years for this day.”
The capsule fell from a distance of 220,000 km (136,700 miles) after it was separated from the Hayabusa2 in a difficult operation requiring precise control.
About two hours after the capsule re-entry, JAXA reported that its helicopter search team had found the capsule at a planned landing site in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia. Drawing of the bowl-shaped capsule, approximately 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter, was completed approximately two hours later.
JAXA officials said they hope to conduct a security pre-screening at an Australian lab and bring the capsule back to Japan early next week.
– Australian Space Agency (@AusSpaceAgency) December 6, 2020
The material collected from the asteroid is believed to have remained unchanged since the creation of the universe. Larger celestial bodies such as the Earth have undergone radical changes, including heating and solidification, changing the composition of materials on their surface and below.
But “when it comes to smaller planets or smaller asteroids, these substances did not melt, and therefore the substances from 4.6 billion years ago are believed to be still there,” Makoto Yoshikawa, the mission leader, told reporters prior to the capsule’s arrival.
Scientists are particularly interested in discovering whether the samples contain organic matter that could help create life on Earth.
“We still don’t know the origin of life on Earth, and with this Hayabusa-2 mission, if we are able to study and understand these organic Ryugu materials, it may be that these organic materials were the source of life on Earth,” said Yoshikawa
Half of the Hayabusa-2 samples will be split between JAXA, the US space agency NASA, and other international organizations, and the rest will be kept for future research as analytical technology advances.
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.
His mission has so far been a complete success. Despite the unusually rocky surface of the asteroid, it landed on Ryugu twice and successfully collected data and samples in a year and a half, which it 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 planets are among the oldest objects in the solar system and can therefore help explain how the Earth evolved.