The Japanese space agency has found a capsule with the first rock samples from the surface of the asteroid, which scientists believe could provide an indication of the origin and life of the solar system on our planet.
The spacecraft Hayabusa2 released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it to Earth to transport specimens from the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) away, the Japan Aerospace Research Agency (JAXA) said.
“The capsule collection work at the unloading site was completed,” the agency said on Twitter about four hours after the capsule landed.
“We practiced a lot today … it ended safely.”
The return of the capsule to the world’s first underground asteroid specimens takes place weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully touched the surface of the asteroid Bennu. China, meanwhile, said this week that the lunar landing had collected underground specimens and sealed them on a spacecraft to return to Earth as space developing nations compete in their missions.
I am very pleased that the capsules brought by Hayabusa 2 six years after its launch have been successfully recovered. We would like to pay tribute to the successful project manager, Professor Tsudam, and to all the people involved, and look forward to the future success of Hayabusa 2, who has gone on a new study without interruption.# Hayabusa 2 pic.twitter.com/RHiXyzZif1
– Residence of the Prime Minister (@kantei) December 5, 2020
At the beginning of Sunday, the capsule briefly turned into a bomb of fire as it re-entered the atmosphere 120 km (75 miles) above the Earth.
About 10 km (6 miles) above the ground, the parachute was opened to slow its fall, and beacon signals were sent to indicate its location.
“It was great … It was a beautiful fireball, and I was so surprised,” said Yuci Tsuda, project manager for the JAXA Hayabusa2 project, marking the successful return of the capsule and safe landing from the command post in Sagamihar, near Tokyo.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for six years.”
The capsule descended from 220,000 km (136,700 miles) after it was separated from Hayabusa2 in a complex operation that required precise control.
About two hours after the capsule re-entered, JAXA said its helicopter search team found the capsule in a planned landing area in a remote, sparsely populated area of Voomera, Australia. The acquisition of a pan-shaped capsule about 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter was completed about two hours later.
JAXA officials said they hope to conduct a preliminary safety check in an Australian laboratory and return the capsule to Japan early next week.
– Australian Space Agency (@AusSpaceAgency) December 6, 2020
It is believed that the material collected from the asteroid has been constant since the formation of the universe. Larger celestial bodies, such as the Earth, underwent radical changes, including heating and solidification, changing the composition of materials on and below their surface.
But “in terms of smaller planets or smaller asteroids, these substances have not melted, and therefore substances that originated 4.6 billion years ago are believed to still exist,” mission leader Makoto Yoshikawa told reporters before the capsule arrived.
In particular, scientists want to find out if the samples contain organic matter that may have helped the life of the seeds on Earth.
“We still do not know the origin of life on Earth, and in carrying out this Hayabusa-2 mission, if we are able to study and understand these organic materials from Ryugu, it is possible that these organic materials were the source of life on Earth,” Yoshikawa said.
Half of the Hayabusa-2 samples will be shared between JAXA, the US space agency NASA and other international organizations, while the rest will be retained for future research as advances in analytical technology progress.
Hayabusa2 is not the end of the mission it began in 2014. It is now embarking on a 10-year one-way journey by a small asteroid called 1998KY26 to carry out possible research, including ways to prevent a meteorite from hitting the Earth.
So far, its mission has been a complete success. Despite the extremely rocky surface of the asteroid, it touched Ryugu twice, and during a year and a half spent near Ryugu, arriving there in June 2018, it successfully collected data and samples.
At its first landing in February 2019, it collected surface dust samples. In a more sophisticated mission, in July of that year, for the first time in space history, it collected underground samples from an asteroid after landing on a crater previously created by blasting the asteroid’s surface.
Asteroids orbiting the sun, but much smaller than the planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and can therefore help explain how the Earth evolved.