TOKYO – Japanese space officials say they are excited about the return of the capsule which landed safely in Outback Australia on Sunday while bringing soil samples from a distant asteroid so they can start analyzing what they say are the treasure inside.
The delivery of the capsules by the Hayabusa2 spacecraft completes a six-year sample return mission and opens the door to research to find clues about the origin of the solar system and life on Earth.
“We can land a treasure box” into Australia’s sparsely populated Woomera desert as planned, said Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for Hayabusa2 at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, adding that the capsule was in perfect condition. “I’m really looking forward to opening it and looking inside.”
The capsules will be packaged in containers as soon as initial treatment at the Australian laboratory is completed and brought back to Japan this week, said Satoru Nakazawa, the project’s sub-manager, during an online press conference from Woomera.
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth, a year ago. After releasing the capsule on Saturday, it embarked on a new expedition to another distant 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 very interested in the organic material in the sample to find out how it is distributed in the solar system and related to life on Earth.
“We have high expectations that analysis of the samples will lead to further research on the origin of the solar system and how water was transported to Earth,” said JAXA president Hiroshi Yamakawa.
The return of the capsule with the world’s first subsurface asteroid sample comes a few weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully sampled the surface from the asteroid Bennu. China, meanwhile, recently announced that its lunar lander is collecting underground samples and sealing them in a spacecraft to return to Earth, as the developing nations of outer space compete on their missions.
JAXA officials said Ryugu’s samples would be handled in a clean room to avoid impacting the samples. Initial research is planned in the first six months, and the samples will be distributed to NASA and other major international research groups, with about 40% saved for future technological advances to resolve unanswered questions.
More than 70 JAXA staff are already working at Woomera to prepare sample returns. They installed parabolic antennas at several locations in the target area inside the Australian Air Force test field to receive signals.
The pan-shaped capsule, about 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter, was found inside the planned landing area and was picked up by the helicopter team from JAXA.
Hayabusa2 released a capsule on Saturday from 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) away in space, sending it back to Earth. About 12 hours after release, the capsule re-entered the atmosphere at a distance of 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Earth, looking like a fireball cutting through the night sky.
For Hayabusa2, this is not the end of the mission. Now he’s headed to a tiny asteroid called 1998KY26 on a trip scheduled to take 11 years one-way, for possible planetary defense research, such as finding a way to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.
Since its launch on 3 December 2014, the Hayabusa2 mission has been completely successful. It landed twice at Ryugu despite the very rocky surface of the asteroid, and managed to collect data and samples during the 1 1/2 years it spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.
During his first landing in February 2019, he collected a sample of surface dust. On a more challenging mission in July of that year, he collected underground samples of the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater he 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 can therefore help explain how the Earth evolved.
Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace”, the name of a seabed castle in Japanese folk tales.
Associated Press writer Dennis Passa in Brisbane, Australia, contributed to this report.