TOKYO (AP) – Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft released a small capsule on Saturday 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, says the space agency country.
The capsule managed to separate from 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) away in a challenging operation that required precise control, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said. The capsule – only 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter – is now falling and is expected to land Sunday in a sparsely populated, remote area of Woomera, Australia.
“The capsule has been separated. Congratulations, ”said JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda.
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.
About two hours later, JAXA reported that it had managed to ride Hayabusa2 for its new mission, as beating staff exchanged fist and elbow touches at the agency’s command center in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.
“We have come this far, and when we fulfill our final mission to restore the capsule, it will be perfect,” said mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa from the command center during a live streaming event.
People who gathered to watch the capsule separation at public viewing events throughout Japan praised the success. “I am delighted that the capsule has been successfully released. My heart was beating fast when I was watching, ”said Ichiro Ryoko, a 60-year-old computer engineer who watched in the Tokyo Dome.
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 returning to Earth, as space-developing nations compete in their missions.
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 (75 miles) above Earth. At approximately 10 kilometers (6 miles) 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. They will also use marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule.
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 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.
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 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 extremely 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.
Associated Press authors Dennis Passa in Brisbane, Australia, and Chisato Tanaka in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Image: Project members celebrate as the success of moving trajectory control to pull out of the Earth’s sphere is confirmed, in a control room at the Sagamihara JAXA Campus in Sagamihara, near Tokyo on Saturday, December 5, 2020. Hayabusa2 released a small capsule on Saturday and sent toward 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 country’s space agency said. (JAXA via AP)