Dhe Japanese space probe Hayabusa 2 has successfully completed its mission to the asteroid Ryugu and sent a sample capsule to Earth. A helicopter found the small container in the landing area, the desert of the Woomera test site for aerospace in southern Australia, announced the Japanese space agency Jaxa on Sunday morning. Researchers expect 4.6 billion year old material from the asteroid Ryugu, which originates from the early days of the solar system, in the container.
After recovery, the capsule is first examined for its condition. The samples are then brought to Japan in the still closed landing capsule, where they are transferred to a laboratory at the Jaxa research center ISAS (Institute of Space and Astronautical Science) in Sagamihara, near Tokyo. Only then is the capsule with the cosmic cargo opened with a robot in a so-called clean room laboratory in a vacuum chamber.
Search for organic material
First of all, the individual components of the samples will be curated and described before microscopic, mineralogical and geochemical investigations will begin in mid-2021. The scientists hope to trace the origins of the solar system and life on earth by analyzing the samples. The samples could possibly contain organic material, said mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa. The main focus is on amino acids, which are the fundamental building blocks of life.
The asteroid Ryugu is particularly rich in carbon and is one of the near-Earth asteroids. Such asteroids could also have brought water to our planet when they hit Earth. The previous probe Hayabusa (peregrine falcon) brought soil samples from an asteroid to Earth for the first time in the world.
The successor Hayabusa 2 was launched from Japan in December 2014 and had reached its destination 300 million kilometers away after almost four years. The probe later landed on Ryugu and collected samples from the surface and, for the first time, from an area below the surface of such an asteroid. The two soil samples from the asteroid were stowed in separate chambers in the capsule.
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) also took part in the spectacular mission with the Mascot lander developed in cooperation with the French space agency CNES. It landed on the asteroid Ryugu in October 2018 and explored it – until its battery ran out. “This is a historic moment for space research,” said DLR CEO Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla on the spectacular return of the sample capsule.
The Hayabusa 2 severed the capsule while flying past the earth. Upon entering the earth’s atmosphere, the capsule became a ball of fire. It was slowed down by the air envelope when the heat developed up to around 3000 degrees Celsius. A parachute was then deployed at a height of around ten kilometers above Australia, on which the capsule floated to earth and emitted radio signals that could then be used to locate it by helicopter.
Unlike the first Hayabusa, which burned up when it entered the earth’s atmosphere, the Hayabusa 2 continued its mission: It is now on its way to another near-Earth asteroid called “1998KY26”. The probe should arrive there in ten years. So far their mission has been a complete success.