TOKYO – Japan’s space agency said the Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully separated a capsule and sent it to Earth to distribute samples of a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origins of the solar system and life on our planet.
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency said the capsule had successfully disconnected Saturday afternoon from 220,000 kilometers away in a challenging operation that required precise control. The capsule is now set to land in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia, on Sunday.
Hayabusa2 dropped the Ryugu asteroid a year ago. After releasing the capsule, it now moves away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending to the planet.
Yuichi Tsuda, a project manager at space agency JAXA, stood up and raised his fists as everyone applauded the moment that command center officials confirmed their successful separation of the capsule.
Hayabusa2’s return with the world’s first asteroid subsurface samples comes weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully acquired surface samples from Asteroid Determination. Meanwhile, China announced this week that its moon lander is collecting underground samples and sealing them inside the spacecraft for return to Earth, as nations compete in space missions.
Many Hayabusa2 fans gathered to observe the moment of capsule separation at public viewing events around the country, including one at the Tokyo Dome stadium.
In the early hours of Sunday, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, will briefly turn into a fireball as it re-opens the atmosphere 120 kilometers above Earth. About 10 kilometers above ground, a parachute will open to slow its collapse and bright signals will be transmitted to indicate its location.
JAXA staff have set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area to receive the signals, while also preparing marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule, 40 centimeters in diameter.
Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who is in Woomera for the advent of the capsule, said he expects Ryugu samples to be similar to the meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison in Victoria more than 50 years ago.
“The Murchison meteorite opened a window on organic origin on Earth because these rocks were found to contain simple amino acids as well as an abundance of water,” said Ireland, “We will explore whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on it. earth when the solar system was forming, and are these still intact on the asteroid. ”
Scientists say they believe the samples, especially those taken under the surface of the asteroid, contain valuable data that is not affected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in the samples.
JAXA hopes to find clues about how the materials are distributed in the solar system and relate to life on Earth.
For Hayabusa2, this is not the end of the mission that began in 2014. After dropping the capsule, it will return to space and go to another distant small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a 10-year one-way slate journey, for potential research including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting the Earth.
So far, its mission has been completely successful. He touched down twice on Ryugu despite his extremely rocky face, and successfully collected data and samples during the 1½ years he spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.
In his first trip in February 2019, he collected surface dust samples. 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 created earlier by exploding the surface of the asteroid.
Asteroids, which rotate the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and so can help explain how the Earth evolved.
Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace,” the name of a castle at the bottom of the sea in a Japanese folk tale.