As you read this, vital clues to the origins of the known universe descend from unimaginable heights straight to the Australian Outback. There, somewhere in the desert desert of Woomera, a capsule containing monster material from an asteroid – the primary target of a six-year multi-billion-mile mission – will make its triumphant arrival on Earth.
The capsule is expected to announce its reentry into Earth’s atmosphere with a glittering fireball around 2 to 3 a.m. local time (12-13 a.m. ET). The event is streamed here by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, which is leading the way the mission.
There is only a small amount of dust and dirt in the capsule with potentially serious consequences. It comes from Ryugu, a jet-black asteroid about a mile wide, orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, about 180 million miles from our planet.
Researchers expect the sample to contain organic matter resembling the early space rocks that made up planets and which, after careful study, can glimpse the mysterious processes that turned the universe into what it is today. In other words, explains JAXA, scientists hope that by examining the monster, they can “access the secrets of the birth of the solar system and the birth of life.”
Scientists have previously studied the composition of asteroids. But most of the time, the material they look at has been radically changed by its arrival on Earth, after the rocks have been burned by atmospheric input and contaminated by other matter it touches after landing. Taken straight from the asteroid and protected by the capsule, this sample should give scientists a more accurate picture of the organic matter in its natural state.
Still, sending the monster back to Earth wasn’t easy, and certainly not getting it in the first place.
After launch in late 2014, JAXA’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft spent 3 1/2 years getting into position by orbiting the sun. After arriving at Ryugu in 2018, the craft first sent a lander to the surface before making two trips on its own to collect materials. For its second visit to the surface of Ryugu in 2019, Hayabusa2 prepared a crater for itself with plastic explosives.
On the return trip, the capsule containing the monster separated from Hayabusa2 at more than 200,000 miles from Earth – a distance that would take you to the moon more than halfway from your home. And JAXA researchers are trying to land the tiny pod in an area roughly 40 square miles in the Australian Outback.
If that wasn’t enough, they will have to find the damn thing, which is expected to contain material that weighs just one gram. It’s a quest that is expected to require at least five antennas, a helicopter, and the support of the Australian space agency and the country’s military.
The specimens, estimated to weigh 1 gram in total, include the world’s first underground asteroid monster. Scientists hope that the primordial materials will aid in further research into the origin of life on Earth and the evolution of the solar system.
Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, told reporters Friday local time that investigators will be moving quickly to take the capsule, once located, to a facility of Australia’s Ministry of Defense for inspection.
“We don’t want to miss anything,” he said during a briefing, according to a translation of Japanese media, “so once the capsule is back in headquarters, we can take the gas sample so that the best science can be obtained from the precious sample that is we are returning from asteroid Ryugu. “
This isn’t the end of the line for Hayabusa2, however. The spacecraft will not track the capsule back to Earth, but will move on to another asteroid traveling between Earth and Mars, expected to reach by 2031.