Billion-year-old asteroid monsters arrive on Earth

D.The Japanese space probe Hayabusa 2 has successfully completed its mission to the asteroid Ryugu and sent a monster capsule to Earth. A helicopter found the small container in the landing area, the desert of the Woomera aerospace test site in South Australia, Japanese space agency Jaxa announced Sunday morning. Researchers expect 4.6 billion year old material from the asteroid Ryugu, which originated from the early days of the solar system, in the container.

After recovery, the capsule is first examined for its condition. The samples are then transported to Japan in the still-closed landing capsule, where they are transferred to a laboratory at the Jaxa research center ISAS (Institute of Space and Astronautical Science) in Sagamihara, near Tokyo. Only then will the capsule with the cosmic charge be opened with a robot in a so-called cleanroom laboratory in a vacuum chamber.

Look for organic matter

First, the individual components of the samples will be curated and described before microscopic, mineralogical and geochemical studies will start in mid-2021. The scientists hope to find out the origins of the solar system and life on Earth by analyzing the samples. The samples could potentially contain organic matter, mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa said. The main focus is on amino acids, the basic building blocks of life.

The asteroid Ryugu is particularly rich in carbon and is one of the near-terrestrial asteroids. Such asteroids could also have brought water to our planet when they hit Earth. The previous probe Hayabusa (peregrine falcon) brought soil samples from an asteroid to Earth for the first time in the world.

Its successor Hayabusa 2 was launched from Japan in December 2014 and reached its destination 300 million kilometers after nearly four years. The probe later landed on Ryugu and collected samples from the surface and, for the first time, from an area below the surface of such an asteroid. The two bottom samples of the asteroid were stored in separate chambers in the capsule.

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) also took part in the spectacular mission with the Mascot lander, which was developed together with the French space agency CNES. It landed on the asteroid Ryugu in October 2018 and explored it – until the battery ran out. “This is a historic moment for space exploration,” said DLR CEO Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla of the spectacular return of the monster capsule.

The Hayabusa 2 cut the capsule as it flew past Earth. Upon entering Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule became a fireball. It was slowed down by the air envelope as the heat developed to about 3000 degrees Celsius. Subsequently, a parachute was deployed at an altitude of ten kilometers above Australia, on which the capsule drifted to Earth and emitted radio signals that could then be located with a helicopter.

Unlike the first Hayabusa, which burned up when it entered Earth’s atmosphere, the Hayabusa 2 continued its mission: it is now heading for another nearby asteroid called “1998KY26”. The probe should arrive there in ten years. So far their mission has been a great success.

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