The Japanese probe Hayabusa2 successfully released a small capsule on Saturday and sent it to Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet, the space agency said. of the country.
The capsule successfully detached from 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) away in a demanding operation that required precision control, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency said. The capsule – only 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter – is now descending and is expected to land on Sunday in a remote and sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia.
The spaceship that successfully “bombed” an asteroid is close to home with a precious cargo
“The capsule has been separated. Congratulations, ”said JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda.
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) away, a year ago. After releasing the capsule, she moved away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending towards the planet as it set out on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.
About two hours later, JAXA said it had successfully hijacked Hayabusa2 for its new mission, while broadcasting personnel exchanged fists and elbows at the agency’s command center in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.
“We have come this far successfully and when we complete our final mission to retrieve the capsule, it will be perfect,” Mission Manager Makoto Yoshikawa said from the command center during a live streaming event.
People who gathered to witness the separation of the capsule at public events across Japan cheered the success. “I am really happy that the capsule was successfully released. My heart was pounding as I watched,” said Ichiro Ryoko, a 60-year-old computer engineer who looked at the Tokyo Dome.
Hayabusa2’s return with the world’s first underground asteroid samples comes weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully performed 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 their return to Earth as space developing nations compete in their missions.
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 kilometers (75 miles) above Earth. About 10 kilometers (6 miles) above the ground, a parachute will open to slow its fall and light signals will be transmitted to indicate its location.
JAXA personnel installed satellite dishes in several locations in the target area to receive signals. They will also use marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and recovery of the pan-shaped capsule.
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. Yoshikawa, the head of the mission, said that 0.1 grams of the powder would be enough to carry out all the planned searches.
For Hayabusa2, it is not the end of the mission that began in 2014. Now he is heading for a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey that is expected to last 10 years one way, for possible research, including looking for ways to prevent meteorites from striking. the earth.
So far, his mission has been fully successful. It landed twice on Ryugu despite the asteroid’s extremely rocky surface, and successfully collected data and samples during the years and a half it spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.
In his first touchdown in February 2019, he collected surface dust samples. On a more challenging mission in July of that year, he collected underground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater he had created earlier by blowing up the asteroid’s surface.
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Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and therefore can help explain how the Earth has evolved.
Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace”, the name of a castle at the bottom of the sea in a Japanese folk tale.