The Japanese space agency has retrieved a capsule containing the first rock samples from beneath the surface of an asteroid that scientists believe may provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet.
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it to Earth to deliver samples from the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said.
“The capsule collection at the landing site has been completed,” the agency said in a tweet about four hours after the capsule landed.
“We practiced a lot for today … it ended safely.”
The return of the capsule containing the world’s first asteroid underground samples comes weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully made a touch-and-go grasp of surface samples from asteroid Bennu. Meanwhile, China announced this week that its lunar module has collected underground samples and sealed them in the spacecraft for return to Earth, while space developing nations compete in their missions.
I am very pleased that the capsules that Hayabusa 2 has brought back after six years of space travel since its launch have been successfully recovered. We would like to pay tribute to the successful project manager, Professor Tsuda, and all the people involved, and look forward to the continued success of Hayabusa 2, which has begun a new exploration without pause.#Hayabusa 2 pic.twitter.com/RHiXyzZif1
– the residence of the prime minister (@uxei) December 5, 2020
Early Sunday, the capsule briefly turned into a fireball as it re-entered the atmosphere 120 km above Earth.
About 10 km (6 miles) above the ground, a parachute was opened to slow its fall and beacon signals were emitted to indicate its location.
“It was amazing … It was a beautiful fireball and I was so impressed,” said Yuichi Tsuda, JAXA Project Manager, Hayabusa2, celebrating the capsule’s successful return and safe landing from a command center in Sagamihara. near Tokyo.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for six years.”
The capsule descended from a distance of 220,000 km (136,700 miles) after separating from Hayabusa2 in a challenging operation that required close monitoring.
About two hours after the capsule’s return, JAXA said the helicopter search team had found the capsule in the planned landing area in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia. Retrieval of the pan capsule, approximately 40 centimeters in diameter, was completed approximately two hours later.
JAXA officials said they hoped to conduct a preliminary safety inspection of an Australian lab and return the capsule to Japan early next week.
– Australian Space Agency (@AusSpaceAgency) December 6, 2020
The material collected from the asteroid is believed to be unchanged since the time the universe was formed. Larger celestial objects such as Earth underwent radical changes, including heating and solidification, which altered the composition of the materials on their surface and below.
But “when it comes to smaller planets or smaller asteroids, these substances have not melted, and therefore substances from 4.6 billion years ago are believed to still be there,” Makoto Yoshikawa, the mission leader, told reporters before the capsule arrived. .
Scientists are particularly curious to see if the samples contained organic matter, which could have helped seed life on Earth.
“We still don’t know where life on Earth comes from and because of this Hayabusa-2 mission, if we can study and understand these organic materials from Ryugu, it may be that these organic materials were the source of life on Earth,” Yoshikawa said
Half of the samples from the Hayabusa-2 will be shared between JAXA, the US space agency NASA and other international organizations, and the remainder will be preserved for future research as analytical technology advances.
For Hayabusa2, this is not the end of the mission it started in 2014. It is now heading for a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a 10-year one-way trip, for possible research, including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.
So far his mission has been completely successful. It landed twice on Ryugu despite the asteroid’s extremely rocky surface, successfully collecting data and samples during the year and a half it spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.
On its first landing in February 2019, it collected surface dust samples. In a more challenging mission in July of that year, it collected underground samples of the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater it had previously created by destroying the asteroid’s surface.
Orbiting the Sun but much smaller than planets, asteroids are among the oldest objects in the Solar System and may therefore help explain how Earth evolved.