TOKYO – A small capsule containing asteroid soil samples that was dropped 136,700 miles (220,000 kilometers) into space by the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 landed in the Australian Outback as expected on Sunday. After a preliminary inspection, he will fly to Japan for research. The extremely high precision required to complete the mission delighted many Japanese, who said they were proud of its success. Project director Yuichi Tsuda of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency called the capsule a “treasure box”. The PA explains the importance of the project and what comes next.
WHAT IS THE HAYABUSA2 MISSION?
Launched on December 3, 2014, the unmanned spacecraft Hayabusa2 twice landed on asteroid Ryugu, more than 300 million kilometers (190 million miles) from Earth. The extremely rocky surface of the asteroid forced the mission team to revise the landing plans, but the spacecraft successfully collected data and soil samples for the 1.5 years it spent. near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.
During its first landing in February 2019, the spacecraft collected surface dust samples, similar to the recent NASA contact by Osiris REx on the asteroid Bennu. Hayabusa2 then dug a crater in the asteroid’s surface and then collected underground samples of the asteroid, a first in space history. At the end of 2019, Hayabusa2 left Ryugu. This year-long trip ended on Sunday.
Japan hopes to use the expertise and technology used in the Hayabusa2 in the future, perhaps in its mission to return MMX 2024 samples to a Martian moon.
WHY AN ASTEROD?
Asteroids orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets. They are among the oldest objects in the solar system and may therefore contain clues about the evolution of the Earth. Scientists say this requires studying samples of these celestial objects.
Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace”, the name of a castle at the bottom of the sea in a Japanese folk tale.
Japanese asteroid research could also help develop resources and find ways to protect Earth from collisions with large meteorites, said Hitoshi Kuninaka, vice president of JAXA.
WHAT IS IN THE CAPSULE?
The saucepan-shaped capsule, about 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter, contains soil samples taken from two different sites on the asteroid. Some gases can also be embedded in samples. The preliminary inspection in a laboratory in Australia consisted of extracting and analyzing the gas. The capsule is due to return to Japan on Tuesday. It will be transported to JAXA’s research center in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.
WHAT CAN THE ATERASTD SAMPLES TELL US?
Scientists say the samples, especially those taken below the asteroid’s surface, contain data from 4.6 billion years ago unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in studying organic materials in samples to find out how they are distributed in the solar system and whether or how they are related to life on Earth. JAXA President Hiroshi Yamakawa said he believes analyzing samples could help explain the origins of the solar system and how water helped bring life to Earth. Fragments brought back from Ryugu can also tell his collision and thermal tale.
After about a year, some of the samples will be shared with NASA and other international scientists. About 40% of them will be stored for future research. JAXA Mission Director Makoto Yoshikawa said just 0.1 grams of the sample could be enough to conduct the planned research, although he said it would be better to add more.
WHY IS HAYABUSA SO IMPORTANT TO JAPAN?
Hayabusa2 is the successor to the original Hayabusa mission that Japan launched in 2003. After a series of technical setbacks, it returned samples from another asteroid, Itokawa, in 2010. The spacecraft was burnt during a reentry failed but the capsule made it to Earth.
Many Japanese were impressed with the return of the first Hayabusa spacecraft, which was considered a miracle given all the problems it faced. JAXA’s subsequent missions to Venus and Mars were also flawed. Tsuda said the Hayabusa2 team used all the hard lessons learned from previous missions to achieve a result that is 100 times better than “perfect”. Some members of the audience who watched the event shed tears as the capsule successfully entered the atmosphere, briefly transforming into a fireball.
About an hour after separating from the capsule 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) from Earth, Hayabusa2 was sent on another mission to the smaller asteroid, 1998KY26. It’s an 11-year one-way ticket. The mission is to study possible ways to prevent large meteorites from colliding with Earth.
This story has been corrected to say that the data should be 4.6 billion years ago, not 46 billion years ago.
Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi
Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.