A Japanese spacecraft is on its intended trajectory, space agency officials said, as it approaches Earth to deliver a capsule containing samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origins of the solar system and life on Earth. .
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu about 180 million miles away a year ago. The capsule will be released into space 136,700 miles on Sunday and land in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia, on Sunday.
Hayabusa2 flies smoothly according to plan, Yuichi Tsuda, project manager at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), said during a briefing ahead of the critical separation of the spacecraft’s capsule on Saturday.
“We trained ourselves and now we are fully prepared. So I just pray that equipment that hasn’t been used will work properly and that there will be good weather in Australia, ”he said. “We’re so looking forward to it.”
In the early hours of Sunday, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, will momentarily turn into a fireball when it re-enters the atmosphere 120 kilometers above Earth. About six miles above the ground, a parachute opens to slow its fall and beacons are emitted to indicate its location.
JAXA employees have set up satellite dishes at various locations in the target area to receive the signals, while also preparing marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule, which is 15 inches in diameter.
Scientists say they believe the samples, especially samples taken beneath the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in the samples.
JAXA hopes to find clues on how the materials are distributed in the solar system and related to life on Earth.
For Hayabusa2, this is not the end of the mission that started in 2014. After dropping the capsule, it will return to space and go to another distant small asteroid named 1998KY26 on a 10-year journey.
So far his mission has been completely successful. It landed twice on Ryugu, despite an extremely rocky surface, collecting data and samples during the 18 months it spent near Ryugu after arriving 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 help explain how Earth evolved.
Ryugu in Japanese means Dragon Palace, the name of a seabed castle in a Japanese folk tale.