The mission to bring Japan’s asteroid dust back to Earth has been successful. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed on 14 December that a capsule of the spacecraft Hayabusa 2, which landed in the Australian desert last week, contained black grains from the asteroid Ryugu.
“Confirmation of the sample is a very important milestone for us and for JAXA,” says Yuchi Tsuda, project manager of JAXA’s mission in Sagamihara.
JAXA said in a statement that they observed sandy matter at the entrance to the collection room, but have yet to see inside whether more erratic dust has lurked there. This is only the second time scientists have returned material from an asteroid.
Ryugu samples can give researchers important insights into the early evolution of planets, and help explain the origin of water on Earth1,2.
“Samples with precious asteroid materials will provide scientists with important information about the construction of the solar system,” says Ed Kruzins, director of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Its encounter with Ryugu.
In the early hours of 6 December, a spectacular fireball hit the southern sky and landed in the desert of South Australia, setting up a race to locate the capsule, which scientists hoped contained material from Ryugu.
“The images that Hayabusa 2 took during its landing operations convinced us that the spacecraft collected Ryugu samples,” the mission’s deputy manager Satoru Nakazawa wrote in an email in Woomera, Australia. But the team could not find out until they disassembled the capsule and watched Dark Dust.
Some 57 hours after the capsule was located, the team made it back to Japan. Yuchi Tsuda, Project Manager, JAXA at Sagamihara, says, “Swift shipments mean that the samples we get from Ryugu are pure without being contaminated by the Earth’s atmosphere and we have confirmed that there are no leaks happened.”
Once the capsule is completely depleted, possibly later today, JAXA scientists will measure the mass of the materials and study its structure and composition. They expect at least 0.1 grams of material to be collected, says Yoshikawa Makoto, mission manager of Hayabusa 2 in Joksa.
In December 2021, some 10% of the material will be sent to NASA in exchange for samples from the asteroid Bennu, the spacecraft OSIRIS-Rex collected in October and should arrive on Earth by the end of 2023. Another 15% will be made available to international researchers. And about 40% will be stored for future scientists to investigate.
Hayabusa 2 collected specimens for more than a year and half of Ryugu – a small asteroid-shaped squad-like shell, filled with giant boulders.3. Ryugu is a C-type, or carbon-rich, asteroid that scientists think was protected from organic and hydrated minerals as far back as 4.6 billion years ago.4. Samples can help explain how the Earth was covered with water. Scientists believe that it came from the outer regions of the solar system on asteroids or similar planetary bodies.
Ceuda is interested in finding that the samples contain more complex organic materials, similar to those found on Earth. “If we find very complex creatures on Ryugu, this is a very big discovery.”
Hayabusa 2 has now begun an 11-year journey to its next destination: a fast-moving asteroid known as the 1998 KY26. To reach it, the spacecraft will fly from another asteroid – the 2001 CC21 and swing past Earth twice.