A Japanese capsule carrying the first samples of an asteroid below the surface, fired through the night atmosphere early Sunday before successfully landing in a remote Australian outback, completing its mission to provide clues as to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth.
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it to Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid. About 10 miles (10 km) above the ground, a parachute was opened to slow its fall, and signals were sent to the lighthouse to indicate its location in the sparsely populated Wumera area of South Australia.
About two hours after re-entry, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said its helicopter search team had found the capsule at the planned landing site. The extraction of the capsule in the form of a pan, with a diameter of about 40 centimeters (15 inches), was completed after another two hours.
“The work of collecting capsules at the landing site has been completed,” the agency tweeted. “We practiced a lot for today … it ended safely.”
The return of the capsule with the first samples of underground asteroids in the world takes place a few weeks after the NASA OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft successfully grabbed the samples from the surface of the asteroid Bennu. China, meanwhile, announced this week that its lunar landing had collected underground specimens and sealed them in spacecraft to return to Earth as space-developing nations compete in their missions.
Thomas Zurbuchen, a Swiss-American astrophysicist and associate administrator of NASA’s Directorate of Science Mission, congratulated the Japanese space agency and “the many people in Japan and beyond who have made it possible.”
Zurbuchen wrote on Twitter: “Together, we will gain a better understanding of the origins of our solar system and the source of water and organic molecules that may have seeds of life on Earth.”
The fireball could even be seen from the International Space Station. A Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, who is now on a six-month mission there, posted on Twitter: “I just noticed # hayabusa2 from #ISS! Unfortunately not bright enough for a handheld camera, but I enjoyed watching the capsule! “
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) a year ago. After releasing the capsule, it moved away from Earth to capture images of the capsule landing on the planet as it embarked on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.
The capsule descended 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) away after being separated from Hayabusa2 in a challenging operation that required precise control. JAXA officials said they hoped to conduct a preliminary safety inspection at an Australian laboratory and return the capsule to Japan early next week.
Dozens of JAXA employees work in Vumera to prepare for the return of the sample. They set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area in the Australian Air Force test field to receive the signals.
A space rock expert at the Australian National University Trevor Ireland, who was in Wumera for the capsule’s arrival, said he expected Ryugu samples to be similar to a meteorite that fell in Australia near Murcison, Victoria, more than 50 years ago.
“Murchison Meteorite opened a window on the origin of organic organisms on Earth because it was discovered that these rocks contain simple amino acids as well as an abundance of water,” said Ireland. “We are examining whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system formed, and whether these still remain intact on the asteroid.”
We noticed the re-entry of the capsule from around Kuber Paddy, with the help of the Curtin Observatory. The awakening was successful and here is our picture! Https://t.co/KTdV0G9moU
Credit: Curtin University, Kuci University of Technology, Nihon University, Ibaraki University, JAKSA pic.twitter.com/qTFW8I8UD9
– HAYABUSA2 @ JAXA (@ haya2e_jaxa) December 6, 2020
Scientists say they believe the specimens, especially those taken from below the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data that does not affect cosmic radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in samples.
JAXA hopes to find clues as to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and related to life on Earth. Makoto Yoshikawa, head of the Hayabusa2 project mission, said 0.1 grams of dust would be enough to carry out all the planned research.
For Hayabusa2, this is not the end of the mission he started in 2014. It is now heading for a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey that should take 10 years in one way, for possible research, including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.
So far, her mission has been completely successful. He touched Ryugu twice despite the asteroid’s extremely rocky surface and successfully collected data and samples during the 1½ years spent near Ryugu since arriving there in June 2018.
At the first touch in February 2019, it collected samples of surface dust. In a more challenging mission in July of that year, he collected underground samples of the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater he had previously created by blasting the asteroid’s surface.
Asteroids orbiting the Sun but much smaller than the planets are some of the oldest objects in the solar system and can help explain how the Earth evolved.
Ryugu means “Dragon Palace” in Japanese, the name of the castle at the bottom of the Japanese folk tale.