A Japanese capsule carrying the first samples of asteroid subsurface shot across the night sky early Sunday before landing in the remote Australian Outback, completing a mission to provide clues to the origins of the solar system and life on Earth.
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it toward Earth to distribute samples of a distant asteroid. About 10 kilometers (6 miles) above ground, a parachute opened to slow its fall and bright signals were transmitted to mark its location in the sparsely populated Woomera area of southern Australia.
About two hours after the rents, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said its helicopter search team found the capsule in the planned landing area. Restoration of the pan-shaped capsule, approximately 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter, was completed after another two hours.
“The capsule collection at the landing site was completed,” the agency said in a tweet. “We practiced a lot for today … it ended safely.”
The capsule’s return with the world’s first asteroid subsurface samples comes weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully made surface samples of 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 space-developing nations compete in their missions.
He congratulated Thomas Zurbuchen, a Swiss-American astrophysicist and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Japan’s space agency and the “many individuals in Japan and beyond who made this possible.”
Zurbuchen wrote on Twitter: “Together we will gain a better understanding of the origins of our solar system, and the source of water and organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth.”
The fireball was visible even 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.
The capsule fell 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) away after being separated from Hayabusa2 in a challenging operation that required precise control. JAXA officials said they hope to conduct a preliminary laboratory safety audit in Australia and bring the capsule back to Japan early next week.
Dozens of JAXA staff have been working at Woomera to prepare for the sample form. They set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area inside the Australian Air Force test field to receive the signals.
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 is a potential source of organic matter and water on it Earth when the solar system was forming, and whether these are still intact on the asteroid.”
We observed the re-entry of the capsule around Coober Pedy, assisted by the Curtin Observatory. The observation was successful and here is our image! Https: //t.co/KTdV0G9moU
Credit: Curtin University, Kouchi University of Technology, Nihon University, Ibaraki University, JAXA pic.twitter.com/qTFW8I8UD9
– HAYABUSA2 @ JAXA (@ haya2e_jaxa) December 6, 2020
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 on how the materials are distributed in the solar system and relate to life on Earth. Makoto Yoshikawa, mission manager for the Hayabusa2 project, said 0.1 grams of the dust would be enough to carry out all planned investigations.
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.