Coober Pedy, Australia – A Japanese spacecraft is expected to launch a capsule containing two samples of the 4.6 billion-year-old Ryugu asteroid above Earth on Saturday, as scientists await the arrival of materials that could help explain the origin of life.
The capsule, which will be released by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 space probe, is expected to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere early Sunday before landing in a South Australian desert, according to JAXA.
The samples, which are estimated to weigh 1 gram in total, include the world’s first underground asteroid sample. Scientists hope that primordial materials will help further research into the origin of life on Earth and the evolution of the solar system.
After landing, a JAXA recovery team will search for a region within the Woomera Forbidden Area, several hundred square kilometers, to collect the capsule.
Once located, the capsule will be taken to a “quick look facility” at an Australian military facility in Woomera to analyze gases that may have been emitted from the asteroid material, according to Masaki Fujimoto, Deputy Director General of the Space Institute. of JAXA and astronautics sciences.
“We sealed the capsule very hermetically, but the gas samples can be lost easily,” Fujimoto said at a press conference on Friday.
“We don’t want to miss anything, so as soon as the capsule is back in the headquarters building, we can extract the gas sample so that the best science can be obtained from the precious sample that we are returning from asteroid Ryugu,” he said.
If gases are detected, Fujimoto said it’s a positive, albeit unofficial, sign that asteroid samples have been successfully collected.
The capsule itself will not be opened in Australia, but flown to Japan for further analysis.
Asteroid Ryugu is a C-type or carbonaceous asteroid, which is believed to have undergone minimal change since the formation of the first solar system and is therefore an example of the types of meteorites that may have struck early Earth.
Scientists believe that at the beginning of Earth’s formation, the planet was too close to the sun for water to condense. Once the planet cooled, water and organics were delivered to Earth by Ryugu-like meteorites, thus making the planet habitable.
“It really shows the miracle of how life exists on this planet and therefore it is a rich question, and this is a small first step to answer this rich question, but someone has to do it, and we are really proud to be the only one”, Fujimoto said.
The Hayabusa2 space probe was launched from the Japanese space center Tanegashima in December 2014 and reached Ryugu in June 2018.
Hayabusa2 made two landings on Ryugu despite the asteroid’s unexpectedly rocky surface.
During the first landing in February 2019, the probe collected a Ryugu surface sample. The second touchdown in July of the same year saw the spacecraft collect the first subsurface samples from an asteroid after creating an artificial crater by firing a copper bullet at the asteroid.
The two samples will provide scientists with a comparison above and below the surface as the materials below the asteroid’s surface will not have experienced the same weathering and potential contamination from other meteorite impacts.
Hayabusa2 will not return to Earth, but will instead continue on an extended mission to explore another distant asteroid named 1998KY26.
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