Space capsule with precious cargo crashes to earth in Australia
A capsule containing samples of a farflung asteroid that could help explain the origins of life on Earth has been recovered in a remote area of the Australian outback.
“The Japanese spacecraft travelled across the solar system, reached an asteroid and exploded it – at least part of it – to take a sample from deep within,” explained Melbourne astrophysicist Professor Alan Duffy told Weekend Today.
“This material has not seen sunlight, essentially, since maybe even the time of the Earth’s formation itself, so it’s an incredible recovery mission.”
Professor Duffy said the capsule contained just “a pinch” of the 1-kilometre wide asteroid, but would provide “a world of information” to astronomers and astronomers and scientists.
“It will be analysed to the absolute extremes, both here in Australia but also back in Japan, and that will tell us what the conditions and ingredients for life were right back when the Earth itself was formed, and whether we owe asteroids like Ryugu thanks to having the ingredients that give us life,” he said.
Australia’s Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews, described it as “a great day for Australia”, saying she hoped it would lead to further collaborations with JAXA.
“(The asteroid sample) is so important for space, it’s so important for research and of course, it’s very good for our relationship with Japan,” she told the Weekend Today show.
Early on Sunday, the capsule briefly turned into a fireball as it re-entered the atmosphere 120 kilometers above Earth.
At about 10 kilometers above the ground, a parachute opened to slow its fall and beacon signals were transmitted to indicate its location.
“It was great … It was a beautiful fireball, and I was so impressed,” said JAXA’s Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda as he celebrated the successful capsule return and safe landing from a command center in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.
“I’ve waited for this day for six years.”
Beacon signals have been detected, suggesting a parachute has also successfully opened and the capsule landed safely in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera in South Australia’s Far North, said JAXA official Akitaka Kishi.
JAXA staff conducted an aerial search for its location using a helicopter.
The fireball could be seen even from the International Space Station.
A Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who is now on a six-month mission there, tweeted: “Just spotted #hayabusa2 from #ISS! Unfortunately not bright enough for handheld camera, but enjoyed watching capsule!”
A retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule, about 40 centimeters in diameter, was successfully done this morning.
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers away, a year ago.
After it released the capsule, it moved away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending toward the planet as it set off on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.
The capsule descended from 220,000 kilometers away in space after it was separated from Hayabusa2 in a challenging operation that required precision control.
JAXA staff were standing by and now they are springing into action to locate the capsule, which some people call “a treasure box”.
JAXA officials plan a preliminary safety inspection at a Australian lab before taking the samples home early next week.
Dozens of JAXA staff have been working in Woomera, SA to prepare for the sample-return.
They have set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area inside the Australian Air Force test field to receive the signals.
Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who is in Woomera for the arrival of the capsule, said he expected the Ryugu samples to be similar to the meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison in Victoria state more than 50 years ago.
“We will examine whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system was forming, and whether these still remain intact on the asteroid.”
Scientists say they believe the samples, especially ones taken from under the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors.
They are particularly interested in analysing organic materials in the samples.
JAXA hopes to find clues to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth.
Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said 0.1 gram of the dust would be enough to carry out all planned researches.
For Hayabusa2, it’s not the end of the mission it started in 2014.
It is now heading to a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years one way, for possible research including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.
So far, its mission has been fully successful.
It touched down twice on Ryugu 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 surface dust samples.
In a more challenging mission in July that year, it collected underground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater that 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 therefore may help explain how Earth evolved.
Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace,” the name of a sea-bottom castle in a Japanese folk tale.