The capsule will be released on Sunday at 2,20,000 kilometers (1,36,700 miles) away in space and will land in a remote and sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia.
Japanese space agency officials said Friday that the Hayabusa2 probe is on its intended trajectory as it approaches Earth to deliver a capsule containing samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the solar system’s origin and life on Earth.
The spacecraft left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) away, a year ago. The capsule will be released on Sunday at 2,20,000 kilometers (1,36,700 miles) away in space and will land in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia.
Hayabusa2 is flying smoothly according to plan, said Yuichi Tsuda, project manager at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), in a briefing before the capsule’s critical separation from the spacecraft on Saturday.
“We trained alone and are now fully prepared. So I’m just praying that the equipment that hasn’t been used yet is working well and that there is good weather in Australia, “he said.
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 at various locations in the target area to receive signals, while also preparing marine radars, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval of the pan-shaped, 40-centimeter (15-inch) capsule. in diameter.
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, it 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.
So far, his mission has been fully successful. He landed on Ryugu twice, despite its extremely rocky surface, and has successfully collected data and samples during the years and a half he 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.
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.