Coober Pedy, Australia – A Japanese space probe is expected to drop a capsule containing two samples of the 4.6-billion-year-old Ryugu asteroid above Earth on Saturday, as scientists await the arrival of materials that could help explain the origin of life.
The capsule, to be released from Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 space probe, is expected to rejoin Earth’s atmosphere early Sunday before landing in a desert in southern Australia, according to JAXA.
The specimens, estimated to weigh 1 gram in total, include the world’s first subsurface asteroid sample. Scientists hope the primordial materials will help further research into the origin of life on Earth and the evolution of the solar system.
Upon landing, the JAXA recovery team will search a region within the Woomera Forbidden Area, of hundreds of square kilometers, to collect the capsule.
Once located, the capsule will be transported to a “quick look facility” at an Australian Defense Force facility in Woomera to analyze gases that may have been emitted by the asteroid material, according to Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the Institute JAXA Space and Astronautical Science.
“We sealed the capsule very tightly, but gas samples are still easily lost,” Fujimoto said in a Friday press briefing.
“We don’t want to lose anything, so as soon as the capsule is back to the headquarters building we can extract the gas sample so that the best science can be obtained from the valuable sample we are returning from Ryugu asteroid,” he said.
If gases are found, Fujimoto said it is a positive, albeit unofficial, indication that asteroid samples were successfully collected.
The capsule itself will not open in Australia, but will be flown to Japan for further analysis.
The Ryugu asteroid is a type C or carbonaceous asteroid, believed to have undergone minimal change since the formation of the early solar system and is therefore an example of the types of meteorites that may have hit early Earth.
Scientists believe that, at the start of the Earth’s formation, the planet is too close to the sun for water to condense. Once the planet cooled, water and organics were delivered to Earth by Ryugu-like meteorites, making the planet habitable.
“It really shows the miracle of how life exists on this planet and so it’s a rich question, and this is a small first step in answering that rich question, but someone has to do it, and we’re really proud to be the one, ”said Fujimoto.
The Hayabusa2 space probe was launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center in December 2014 and arrived in Ryugu in June 2018.
Hayabusa2 made two landings on Ryugu despite the unexpected rocky surface of the asteroid.
During the first landing in February 2019, the probe collected a surface sample from Ryugu. During the second encounter in July of the same year, the probe collected the first ever subsurface samples of an asteroid after creating an artificial crater by shooting a copper projector at the asteroid.
Both samples will provide scientists with a comparison above and below the surface as materials beneath the surface of the asteroid will not have experienced the same weathering and possible contamination from other meteorite effects.
Hayabusa2 will not return to Earth but will instead continue on an extended mission to explore another distant asteroid called 1998KY26.
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