- Paul Rincon
- BBC News Science Editor
An Australian team has found and recovered a space capsule containing samples from an asteroid.
And it is estimated that these are the first significant amounts of an aerolite that can shed new light on the history of the solar system.
The capsule, which contains material from the space rock Ryugu, was parachuted near Woomera, a desert region in South Australia.
The samples were collected by the Japanese Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, which spent more than a year investigating the asteroid.
The capsule – or container – separated from Hayabusa-2 before entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Hayabusa-2’s official Twitter account reported that the container and its parachute were found at 7:47 p.m. (GMT) Saturday.
Previously, cameras had captured images of the capsule descending “like a dazzling fireball” over the Australian town of Coober Pedy.
The container deployed its parachute to slow its descent.
The moment it entered Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule began to learn about its position.
The spacecraft eventually landed in Woomera, an area under the control of the Royal Australian Air Force.
When the salvage team discovered where the capsule had landed, around 6:07 PM GMT, a helicopter equipped with an antenna was deployed to locate the container.
It is now under a “rapid review” protocol before being flown to Japan.
Then the capsule, which weighs 16 kilograms, will be transferred to a preservation chamber at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in the city of Sagamihara for analysis and storage.
The Japanese mission attempted to collect a sample of more than 100 milligrams from the asteroid Ryugu.
Professor Alan Fitzsimmons from Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, explained that the sample is able to reveal a lot of data “not only about the history of the solar system, but also about these specific objects.”
Asteroids are essentially construction objects left over from the formation of the Solar system.
They are made of the same material that planets such as Earth are made of.
“Having samples from an asteroid like Ryugu will be very exciting for our field. We think Ryugu is made up of super old rocks that will tell us how the solar system came to be,” said Professor Sara Russell, a researcher in the Planetary Materials group. at the Museum of Natural History London, at the BBC.
Studying samples from Ryugu could tell us how water and the ingredients for life got to the early Earth.
Comets were long thought to be the transporters of lots of water of the Earth in the early days of the solar system.
Instead, Professor Fitzsimmons points out that the chemical profile of water in comets was different from the profile of water in our planet’s oceans.
However, the composition of the water in some asteroids in the outer solar system is more similar.
“We may have looked at comets for the origin of water on Earth during the early solar system. Maybe we should have looked a little closer to home, in these primitive but rather rocky asteroids,” the expert tells the BBC.
“In fact, that’s something that will be analyzed very carefully in these Ryugu samples,” he concludes.
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