Tokyo A Japanese spacecraft is approaching Earth after traveling home from a distant asteroid for a year with soil samples and data that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system, a space agency official said Friday.
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth, a year ago and is expected to reach Earth, dropping a capsule containing the precious monsters in South Australia on December 6.
Scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency believe the samples, especially those from beneath the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors.
Makoto Yoshikawa, a Hayabusa2 project mission manager, said scientists are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in the Ryugu soil samples.
“Organic materials are the origin of life on Earth, but we still don’t know (asterisk) where they come from,” said Yoshikawa. “We hope to find clues to the origins of life on Earth by analyzing details of the organic materials Hayabusa2 has brought back.” JAXA, the space agency, plans to drop the capsule containing the monsters in a remote, sparsely populated area in Australia from 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) into space, a major challenge requiring close monitoring.
The capsule, protected by a heat shield, will transform into a fireball upon reentry 200 kilometers (125 miles) above the ground.
About 10 kilometers (6 miles) above the ground, a parachute opens to prepare for landing and beacons are emitted to indicate the location.
JAXA employees have set up satellite dishes in various locations in the target area to pick up the signals, while also preparing marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval mission.
Without those measures, a search for the pan-shaped capsule 40 centimeters in diameter would be “extremely difficult,” Yoshikawa told reporters.
For Hayabusa2, this is not the end of the mission he started in 2014. After dropping the capsule, it returns to space and goes to another distant small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey expected to last 10 years.
Hayabusa2 landed twice on Ryugu, despite its extremely rocky surface, and successfully collected data and samples for the 1½ years since it arrived there in June 2018.
On the first landing in February 2019, it collected surface dust samples. In July, for the first time in space history, it collected underground samples from the asteroid after landing in a crater it had previously created by destroying the asteroid’s surface.
Scientists said there are traces of carbon and organic matter in the asteroid soil samples. JAXA hopes to find clues as to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and relate to life on Earth.
Orbiting the sun but much smaller than planets, asteroids are among the oldest objects in the solar system and can therefore help explain how Earth evolved.
It took the spacecraft 3.5 years to arrive in Ryugu, but the journey home was much shorter due to the current locations of Ryugu and Earth.
Ryugu means ‘Dragon Palace’ in Japanese, the name of a seabed castle in a Japanese folk tale. (AP)
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