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Spectators gathered in a theater near the Japanese capital Tokyo to watch the return with folded and waved banners in NHK images, with a woman in tears. They wore masks and kept their distance from each other as precautions against the coronavirus.
Asteroids are believed to have formed at the beginning of the solar system, and scientists say the sample may contain organic matter that could have contributed to life on Earth.
“What we’re really doing here is trying to get a taste of this pristine rock that hasn’t been irradiated by the sun,” astrophysicist Lisa Harvey-Smith told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Gases trapped in the rock samples could reveal more about conditions from about 4.6 billion years ago, she added.
The capsule recall also points to close technical cooperation between Japan and Australia.
“Our task of supporting JAXA will not be completed until we see the monster … safely leave Australia and return to Japan,” Megan Clark, head of the Australian Space Agency, told the press conference.
“And then the monster will begin to tell its stories and reveal to us some beautiful signs of how water arrived on our Earth and how we may even have been formed, such as our organics, carbon-based animals, humans and plants.”
The Japanese craft, named after the peregrine falcon, a bird of prey, orbited the asteroid for a few months to map its surface before landing. It used small explosives to blow up a crater and collected the resulting debris.
After Hayabusa2 dropped the capsule, it changed course and returned to space.
The capsule lit up upon reentry early on Sunday and landed in the Woomera-restricted area about 460 km (285 miles) north of Adelaide, the space agency said. (Reporting by Melanie Burton; edited by William Mallard and Clarence Fernandez)