A Japanese capsule carrying the first samples of the asteroid’s surface shot across the night atmosphere early on Sunday before landing in the remote Australian Outback, completing a mission to provide clues to the solar system’s origins and life on Earth.
The spacecraft Hayabusa2 released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it to Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid. About 10 kilometers (6 miles) above the ground, a parachute was opened to slow down the fall and beacons were transmitted to indicate its location in the sparsely populated area of Woomera in southern Australia.
About two hours after re-entry, Japan’s space research agency said its helicopter search team found the canister in the planned landing area. The recovery of the pan-shaped capsule, about 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter, was completed after another two hours.
“The canister collection work at the landing site was completed,” the agency said in a tweet. “We trained a lot today … it probably ended.”
The return of the capsule with the world’s first asteroid test below the surface comes weeks after NASA’s spacecraft OSIRIS-REx made a successful touch-and-go grip on surface samples from the asteroid Bennu. Earlier this week, China announced its lunar lander collected underground samples and sealed them in the spacecraft to return to Earth, as space-developing countries compete in their missions.
Thomas Zurbuchen, a Swiss-American astrophysicist and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Directorate, congratulated Japan’s space agency and “the many individuals in Japan and beyond who made this possible.”
Zurbuchen wrote on Twitter: “Together we get a better understanding of the origin of our solar system and the source of water and organic molecules that may have exposed life on earth.”
The fireball could also be seen from the International Space Station. A Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, who is now on a six-month mission there, tweeted: “Just discovered # hayabusa2 from #ISS! Unfortunately not enough light for handheld camera, but enjoyed looking at the capsule! ”
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers away, a year ago. After releasing the capsule, it moved away from Earth to capture images of the capsule sinking toward the planet as it set off on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.
The capsule came down from 220,000 kilometers away after it was separated from Hayabusa2 in a challenging operation that required precision control. JAXA officials said they hoped to carry out a preliminary security check at an Australian laboratory and return the capsule to Japan early next week.
Dozens of JAXA employees have worked at Woomera to prepare for the test. They set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area within the Australian Air Force test field to receive the signals.
Australian National University space expert Trevor Ireland, who was in Woomera before the capsule’s arrival, said he expected the Ryugu samples to resemble the meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison in the state of Victoria more than 50 years ago.
“The Murchison meteorite opened a window on the origin of organic matter on earth because these rocks were found to contain simple amino acids as well as plenty of water,” said Ireland. “We will investigate whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system was formed and whether these still remain intact on the asteroid. ”
We observed the capsule re-entering from around Coober Pedy, using the Curtin Observatory. The observation was successful and here is our picture! Https: //t.co/KTdV0G9moU
Credit: Curtin University, Kouchi University of Technology, Nihon University, Ibaraki University, JAXA pic.twitter.com/qTFW8I8UD9
– HAYABUSA2 @ JAXA (@ haya2e_jaxa) December 6, 2020
Researchers say they believe the samples, especially those taken below the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data that is not affected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in the samples.
JAXA hopes to be able to find clues to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on earth. Makoto Yoshikawa, project manager Hayabusa2, said that 0.1 grams of dust would be enough to carry out all planned investigations.
For Hayabusa2, it is not the end of the mission that started in 2014. It is now on its way to a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey that will take 10 years one way, for possible research including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting the earth.
So far, its mission has been completely successful. It touched Ryugu twice despite the asteroid’s extremely rocky surface and successfully collected data and samples during the 1½ years it spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.
In its first touchdown in February 2019, it collected dust samples on the surface. In a more challenging mission in July of that year, it collected underground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater it created earlier by blasting the asteroid’s surface.
Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and can therefore help explain how the earth evolved.
Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace”, the name of a seabed castle in a Japanese folk tale.