Saturday , May 21 2022

Japan’s Hayabusa2 asteroid sample lands perfectly in the Australian backcountry


He sighed, shined, then disappeared in a flash. In the early hours of Sunday morning, local time, the sample capsule Hayabusa spacecraft2 plowing through the atmosphere over an Australian mining town, Coober Pedy, igniting a short-lived path of fire through the air.

Above the Lookout Cave Motel in the town center, just before 4 am local time (9:30 pm PT), about a dozen people gathered and mingled. Tripods were raised and camera equipment tuned and pointed to the sky. Then, without sound, a twinkling point of light appeared out of the darkness. He moved quickly. The crowd exploded with “oohs” and some pointed their phones to the sky.

Shocked by the show included 34-year-old Ross, of Townsville, and his two sons, 6-year-old Max and 8-year-old Chase. “It was pretty cool,” Ross said. “It was worth getting up early.”

Locked inside the capsule is the first ever subterranean sample of an asteroid. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed that the 16-inch container touched down on the flat ocher plains of the Woomera Prohibited Area more than 200 miles southeast of Coober Pedy at approximately 4:37 am local time (10:07 am PT, Saturday).

The landing is the culmination of a decade of work by JAXA scientists and engineers, and comes six years after Hayabusa2, about the size of a washing machine, left Earth. The spacecraft traveled over 3.2 billion miles on its journey to Ryugu asteroid near Earth and back, spending over a year using specialized cameras, radar and infrared imaging to survey the spinning top shape rock. On two occasions in 2019, he collected surface samples in snack-and-go movements.

Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director of the JAXA Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), says the mission has been one of the defining moments of his life. As it turned out, it was clear that the shocking finale and recovery operations would be bitter. .

“This is the last time we will all be together,” Fujimoto said.

There is still some way to go, starting with ensuring that the contents of the capsule are safe. The recovery mission took place in the previous darkness of the post-date and confirmation of the capsule collection is still pending.

Outback Adventure

The Australian Space Agency and the Department of Defense (Department of Defense) played a significant role in the safe return of the capsule. The Department of Defense manages the Woomera Forbidden Area (WPA), a huge piece of land, about half the size of the United Kingdom, where the capsule was guided after its release from Hayabusa2 on Saturday. Road closures kept residents from passing through the region for nearly 12 hours, as a precautionary measure.

JAXA engineers tightened the final landing zone to an area about a tenth of that size, with some dexterity moving as the spacecraft traveled back to Earth.

The sample entered the Earth’s atmosphere moving at about 7.5 miles per second, but as it hit the dense atmosphere it slowed to about 110 yards per second, throwing its heat shield and using its parachute. After gliding for about 20 minutes, it landed on the red, Mars-like plains of WPA.

To help locate the sample capsule, members of the Defense Force locked on it as it began to burn through the atmosphere, tracking it with ground cameras and radar. This enabled the JAXA team to source the sample and send its helicopter team to fly out and collect it at approximately 4:47 am, locally. The very first person who had the honor of touching the capsule was a security officer, said Satoru Nakazawa, who led the recovery mission.

After acquiring the capsule, the recovery team transported it to a pop-up lab at the Woomera Range Operations Center, known as a Quick View Facility or QLF.

What’s in the box?

The team predicts that Hayabusa2 collected about one gram of material from Ryugu, based on observations of spacecraft cameras. Confirmation of exactly what was skipped during the two Hayabusa2 heists is expected over the coming weeks.

JAXA’s expert retrieval team located the capsule at approximately 5:34 am local time and transported it back to the QLF for testing. According to Hayabusa2’s JAXA Twitter account, all operations stopped at 6:01 am local time (11:31 am PT). “The operation was perfect,” he read the tweet.

Hajime Yano, a scientist with ISAS, says the sample capsule will not be opened until it is returned to an ISAS facility in Japan. However, a device capable of measuring a small amount of gas in a sample was erected within the QLF to perform the first capsule analysis.

The facility includes a clean room, and staff must be dressed head-to-head in protective gear – not because of concern about some idle or even long-term alien asteroid disease COVID-19, but to protect the sample from any contamination. Upon returning, Yano and his team punctuated the bottom of the capsule to detect any residual gas. Preliminary analysis will enable researchers to determine if Hayabusa2 was able to capture pieces of rock and debris from the Ryugu surface.

Fujimoto says the capsule will be priced open in Japan sometime “around December 20th.” The capsule content is expected to improve our understanding of the early solar and Earth system.

Previous observations of Ryugu by Hayabusa2 have suggested the presence of water-retaining mineral remains in the asteroid. Some scientists believe that this may be how water was brought to the surface of the Earth and, possibly, how organic material made a hand down on the early planet and early life.

Return to Woomera

Many members of the JAXA team will now turn their attention to Phobos and Deimos, two moons from Mars. The Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) mission is expected to launch in 2024 and is likely to return a sample obtained from the face of Phobos by 2029.

The mission will include partnerships with NASA, the French Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA). It is also likely to include another key partner: Australia. Although not officially confirmed, Fujimoto has suggested that those samples would also touch outdoors.

“With my experience this time, I really tend to have Woomera as a landing place,” he said. “We want to continue to work together.”

Fujimoto says JAXA’s interests and the Australian Space Agency’s interests are closely aligned. Megan Clark, head of the Australian Space Agency, is passionate about keeping Japan-Australia relations going, allowing the nation’s new agency to continue to grow.

“International partnerships are central to us,” he said. “We cannot transform our own space industry and grow these jobs without the depth of international partnerships.”

The Hayabusa2 sample return mission is over, but the spacecraft is not retired. JAXA engineers and scientists will steer the probe to two more asteroids over the next decade. And maybe another Hayabusa mission is in the works as well. JAXA personnel have leaked provocative suggestions that the duality might become a trilogy in the future. Will we see Hayabusa3? That is an obvious possibility.

A press conference detailing the sample recovery operation is scheduled for 11 pm PT on Saturday, with Megan Clark, Fujimoto and other representatives of JAXA. You can find the stream below.

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