The Japanese space capsule Hayabusa2 will fall back to Earth after six years of mission with the asteroids



A space capsule carrying dust and rocks from an asteroid is expected to land in the South Australian desert early Sunday morning.

The Japanese capsule Hayabusa2, which is returning from its mission to the asteroid Ryugu, is expected to land on the Woomera Forbidden Area approximately 500 kilometers northwest of Adelaide at approximately 4:00 am (local time).

It will put on a spectacular show in the morning twilight as it makes its way to Earth.

Then the hunt will begin to find the landing spot.

A guy with sunglasses and a blue shirt with badges in front of a large building
Professor Masaki Fujimoto in Woomera.(ABC News: Sarah Mullins)

Professor Fujimoto said the mission will help scientists answer some of the fundamental questions about how our solar system formed and where elements like water come from.

“By studying the Ryugu sample we will be able to understand the process that made our planet habitable,” he said.

“The reason we care about these primordial asteroids is that they are connected to the process that made our planet possible.”

Impression of Hayabusa2 artists
The Hayabusa2 mission is bringing space rocks back to Earth this weekend.(Provided: JAXA)

Hayabusa2 will be the second asteroid champion mission to return to Woomera, a 122,000-square-kilometer defense area that encompasses the traditional lands of six Aboriginal groups.

In 2010, Hayabusa1 returned with specks of dust blown off the surface of an asteroid called Itokawa.

There are many similarities between the two missions and some fundamental differences.

The mission at a glance

Launched in 2014, Hayabusa2 took four years to reach the diamond-shaped space rock between Earth and Mars.

A rocket is launched from a launch site.
After launching in 2014, it took about four years for the aircraft to reach Ryugu.(Provided: JAXA)

When he arrived, the scientists realized that Ryugu was covered by far more boulders than they expected, but they eventually grounded two “hopping” rovers. and blew up a crater to collect rock fragments.

While Hayabusa1 has collected dust from the surface, this is the first mission to collect rocks from below the surface.

“When we got to Ryugu we were so shocked to see the rock surface everywhere, so it was really hard to find a landing spot, but we made the touchdown twice,” said Professor Fujimoto.

The cameras on the spacecraft indicate that it has collected about 1 gram of space dirt.

In November last year, the spacecraft began its journey back to Earth.

After traveling more than 5.2 billion kilometers in six years, it is ready to send the capsule to Earth.

Unlike last time, the same Hayabusa2 spacecraft will not return to Earth.

Instead, after separating from the capsule a day before landing, it will fly away on a new mission to meet three other asteroids between 2026 and 2031.

Artistic impression of Hayabusa 2 landing on Ryugu
An artist’s impression of the spaceship landing on Ryugu.(Provided: JAXA)

So what’s the landing plan?

As the capsule descends towards Earth at supersonic speeds, its trajectory will be traced by teams of scientists scattered hundreds of kilometers on the ground and in the air.

As the only international observer, Australian scientist Trevor Ireland will be aboard the helicopter tasked with locating the capsule somewhere in an area tens of kilometers wide.

“We should pretty much know where it is as it goes down,” said Professor Ireland of the Australian National University, who was also on the science team for the Hayabusa1 mission.

The planned re-entry trajectory of the Hayabusa2 space capsule through the Earth's atmosphere in the SA outback.
The planned return for the Hayabusa2 space capsule.(Provided: JAXA)

As the capsule slows down in Earth’s atmosphere, the heat shield around it will glow like a fireball for about 40-50 seconds above Coober Pedy, 400 kilometers north of Woomera.

‘The last time was very spectacular because the spacecraft came with it,’ said Professor Ireland.

“This time we don’t want it to be that spectacular, we just want to see that beautiful red glow of the oncoming space capsule.”

Once the capsule slows down enough, it will deploy a drag parachute and then a second main parachute.

Scientists, including four teams from the Desert Fireball Network at Curtin University, will track the capsule’s trajectory as it crosses the sky.

“The Desert Fireball Network team will be installing cameras all along the Stuart Highway to take pictures of this brilliant shooting star,” said team leader Ellie Sansom, currently in Coober Pedy.

The Desert Fireball Network has also teamed up with a group of Japanese researchers who can’t be in Australia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is putting out tools from them that listen for the sonic boom and detect any ground shaking.

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In Woomera, more than 70 Japanese scientists will track the descent using radar, Professor Ireland said.

“The radar guys will have a much longer view of it when it arrives because once the parachute is opened they will have a bigger object to look at,” he said.

A beacon on the capsule will help Japanese scientists refine the position.

‘The last time the radio signals were within a few hundred meters,’ said Professor Ireland.

Meanwhile, NASA scientists flying two airplanes will watch as the material blows off the capsule’s heat shield as it descends.

Mission control in Woomera
Mission control in the forbidden area of ​​Woomera, where Royal Australian Air Force personnel are assisting the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.(ABC News: Sarah Mullins)

Could the weather affect the landing?

Clouds not really. Wind definitely.

Meteorites fall into Earth’s atmosphere all the time regardless of clouds, but strong winds could affect where the capsule lands.

‘When the capsule is under the parachute, it can travel a reasonable distance,’ said Professor Ireland.

“The last 10 kilometers are the big deal as it’s going down, once it gets into our weather systems.”

Professor Trevor Ireland holds a vial of moon dust in his hand.
Professor Ireland holds a vial of moon dust collected by Neil Armstrong in his hand.(Provided: Australian National University)

If the weather is not favorable, it will also make recovery a little more complicated.

“If it’s not a very nice day, they will try to contain it very quickly so it doesn’t get covered in dust or rain.”

What happens when it lands?

Once the capsule lands, a team including Professor Ireland will head out to find it.

“I would be very surprised if it was a long search,” he said.

A space capsule used to carry asteroid samples.
The capsule carries samples which, although small, will be of enormous interest to scientists.(Provided: JAXA)

Once the capsule is deemed safe, the team can get to work to make sure there are no cracks or contamination.

“The last one [from Hayabusa1] it was absolutely pristine, there wasn’t a mark on it, “he said.

“It was inside these heat shields as it’s coming down, and space … it’s not a dirty environment, so we don’t think there will be too much contamination.”

An atmospheric photo shows a rocket launched below with a vertical column of smoke behind it falling towards the brown landscape.
The Woomera Range Complex is used for both launches and landings.(Provided: Australian Department of Defense)

The team will then take the sample back to base, where it will check for gas leaking from the capsule – an initial indication that they have a sample inside.

It will then be packed and sent back to Japan for weighing and analysis.

“We should have a pretty good idea within a couple of weeks that there is a champion there,” said Professor Ireland.

What do scientists hope to learn?

Asteroids can tell us how our solar system was formed.

‘All this little information is important in understanding what happened 4.5 billion years ago,’ said Professor Ireland.

While Itokawa is an S-type or stony asteroid thought to come from the inner solar system, Ryugu is a C-type asteroid, believed to contain organic material and water from the outer solar system.

Although type C asteroids are the most common type (about 75% of asteroids are type C), meteorites from them rarely make it to Earth.

“If we can relate both of these two types of asteroids to meteorites arriving on Earth, then we have a much better solution as to what is really happening with our meteor collections.”

The surface of the asteroid Ryugu.
The surface of the asteroid Ryugu, from an altitude of about 64 meters.(Provided: JAXA)

That said, there are a lot more meteorites and asteroids out there.

NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission, which is currently exploring another C-type asteroid called Bennu, will return to Earth, landing in Utah in 2023.

Professor Ireland will also be involved in the analysis of Bennu’s powders.

“Meteorites are beautiful, they give us those early solar system stamps, but there’s nothing like getting a sample.”

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