The Japanese probe Hayabusa2 has successfully separated a capsule and sent it to Earth to provide samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said the capsule successfully detached from 220,000 km (136,700 miles) away on Saturday afternoon in a demanding operation that required precision control. The capsule is now descending to land in a remote and sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia on Sunday.
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300m kilometers (180m miles) away, a year ago. After the capsule is released, it is now moving away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending on the planet.
Yuichi Tsuda, project manager at the Jaxa space agency, stood up and raised his fists as everyone cheered as command center officials confirmed the successful separation of the capsule.
Hayabusa2’s return with the world’s first subsurface asteroid samples comes weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully carried out a touch-and-go capture of surface samples from asteroid Bennu. China, meanwhile, announced this week that its lunar lander has collected underground samples and sealed them inside the spacecraft for return to Earth as space developing nations compete in their missions.
Many Hayabusa2 fans gathered to watch the capsule separation moment during public viewing events across the country, including one at the Tokyo Dome stadium.
In the early hours of Sunday, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, will briefly transform into a fireball as it reenters the atmosphere 120 km (75 miles) above Earth. About 10 km (6 miles) above the ground, a parachute will open to slow its fall and light signals will be transmitted to indicate its location.
Jaxa staff installed satellite dishes at various locations in the target area to receive signals, while also preparing a marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search for and retrieval of the pan-shaped, 40 cm (15 cm) capsule. inches) in diameter.
Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who is in Woomera for the capsule’s arrival, said he expected Ryugu’s samples to be similar to the meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison in the state of Victoria more than 50 years ago.
“The Murchison meteorite opened a window into the origin of organic matter on Earth because these rocks were found to contain simple amino acids and abundant water,” Ireland said.
“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 those taken from beneath the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in the analysis of organic materials in samples.
Jaxa hopes to find clues as to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth.
For Hayabusa2, it is not the end of the mission that began in 2014. After dropping the capsule, he will return to space and head to another small distant asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey that is expected to last 10 years one way, for a possible search that includes finding ways to keep meteorites from hitting Earth.