TOKYO: Japanese space officials say they are excited about the return of a capsule that landed safely in an Australian outback on Sunday while carrying soil samples from a distant asteroid so they can begin exploring the treasures inside.
The delivery of the capsule from the Hayabusa2 spacecraft completes its six-year mission to return the sample and opens the door to research to find clues to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth.
“We were able to lower the treasure chest” onto Australia’s sparsely populated mountain as planned, said Yuichi Tsuda, head of the Hayabusa2 project at Japan’s space agency JAXA, adding that the capsule was in perfect shape. “I really look forward to opening it and looking inside.”
The capsule will be packaged in a container as soon as it completes its preliminary treatment in an Australian laboratory and will be returned to Japan this week, said Satoru Nakazawa, the project’s deputy manager, during an online press conference from Wumera.
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth, a year ago. After releasing the capsule on Saturday, he embarked on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.
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 the organic materials in the samples to find out how the materials are distributed in the solar system and related to life on Earth.
“We have high expectations that the analysis of the sample will lead to further research into the origins of the solar system and how water was transported to Earth,” said JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa.
The return of the capsule with the first samples of underground asteroids in the world occurs a few weeks after the NASA OSIRIS-REX spacecraft managed to successfully grab samples from the surface of the asteroid Bennu. China, meanwhile, recently announced that its lunar lander had collected underground specimens and sealed them in spacecraft to return to Earth as space-developing nations compete in their missions.
JAXA officials said Ryugu samples would be handled in clean chambers to avoid any impact on the samples. Initial research is planned for the first six months, and samples will be distributed to NASA and other key international research groups, with about 40% saved for future technological advances in resolving unanswered questions.
More than 70 JAXA employees worked 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.
The pan-shaped capsule, about 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter, was found within the planned landing site and retrieved by a team of JAXA helicopters.
Hayabusa2 released the capsule on Saturday 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) from space, sending it to Earth. About 12 hours after its release, the capsule re-entered the atmosphere 120 kilometers from Earth, seen as a ball of fire cutting through the night sky.
For Hayabusa2, this is not the end of the mission. It is now heading for a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey that should take 11 years in one way, for possible research into the defense of the planets, such as finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.
Since its launch on December 3, 2014, the Hayabusa2 mission has been a complete success. 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 specimens 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 in Japanese means “Dragon Palace”, the name of the castle at the bottom of the sea in Japanese folklore.