TOKYO – Japan’s space agency said its helicopter search team on Sunday recovered a capsule carrying asteroid samples after it successfully landed in a remote area of southern Australia as planned.
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it to Earth to distribute samples of a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said.
“The capsule collection at the landing site was completed,” the agency said in a tweet about four hours after the capsule landed. “We practiced a lot for today … it ended safely.”
The capsule’s return with the world’s first asteroid subsurface samples came weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully acquired surface samples from Asteroid Determination. Meanwhile, China announced this week that its moon lander had collected underground samples and sealed them inside the spacecraft to return to Earth.
Early Sunday, the capsule briefly turned into a fireball as it reopened the atmosphere 120 kilometers (75 miles) above Earth. About 10 kilometers (6 miles) above ground, a parachute opened to slow its fall, and bright signals were transmitted to indicate its location.
“It was great. … It was a beautiful fireball, and Yuichi Tsuda, project manager of JAXA Hayabusa2 as I celebrated the successful capsule’s safe return and landing from a command center in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.” i have waited for this day for six years. “
About two hours after the capsule rents, JAXA said its helicopter search team found the capsule in the planned landing area. Restoration of the pan-shaped capsule, about 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter, was completed about two hours later.
The fireball was visible from the International Space Station. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, now on a six-month mission there, tweeted: “Just noticed # hayabusa2 from #ISS! Unfortunately not bright enough for a handheld camera, but enjoyed watching capsule!”
Hayabusa2 dropped the Ryugu asteroid, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) away, a year ago. After he released the capsule, he moved away from Earth to capture images of the capsule falling toward the planet as it embarked on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.
Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who was in Woomera for the advent of the capsule, said he expected 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,” Ireland said. “We will explore whether Ryugu was a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system was forming, and whether these are 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.
Clues about classification
JAXA hopes to find clues on how the materials are distributed in the solar system and relate to life on Earth. Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said 0.1 grams of the dust would be enough to carry out all the planned research.
For Hayabusa2, this is not the end of the mission that began in 2014. It is now heading to a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a 10-year road trip one way, for potential research including finding ways to stop meteorites from hitting the Earth.
So far, its mission has been completely successful. He touched down twice on Ryugu despite the very rocky surface of the asteroid, and successfully collected data and samples during the 1½ years he spent near Ryugu upon his arrival 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.