Japan’s Hayabusa 2 asteroid journey ends with a hunt in Australia’s Outback


Japan’s space agency is nearing the end of a journey of discovery that aims to shed light on the earliest eras of the solar system and possibly provide clues about the origin of life on Earth.

But first, the Australian outback would go on a scavenger hunt.

Later this week, bits of the asteroid will land in a barren area near Woomera, South Australia. These are being trampled to Earth by Hayabusa2, a robotic space probe launched by Japan’s space agency Jaxa in 2014 to locate an asteroid named Ryugu, half a mile wide from a dark, carbon-rich rock .

The mission’s success and the science it produces will elevate Japan’s position as a central player in deep space exploration, along with NASA, the European Space Agency and Russia. JAXA currently has a spacecraft orbiting Venus that is studying the planet’s hellish climate and collaborating with Europeans on a mission that is en route to Mercury.

In the coming years, Japan plans to bring rocks back from Phobos, which is the Moon of Mars, and contribute to NASA’s Artemis program to send astronauts to Earth’s Moon.

But the immediate challenge would be to search in the dark for a 16-inch-wide capsule with samples of asteroids within hundreds of square miles in an area 280 miles north of the nearest big city, Adelaide.

“It’s really nowhere,” said Shogo Tachibana, chief investigator in charge of analyzing the Hayabusa 2 samples. He is part of a team of more than 70 people from Japan who have arrived in Wumera to recover the capsule. The area, used by the Australian Army for testing, provides a wide open space that is ideal for the return of an interdisciplinary investigation.

The small return capsule detached from the main spacecraft about 12 hours before the scheduled landing, when it was about 125,000 miles from Earth. JAXA will broadcast live coverage of the capsule’s landing on Saturday at 11:30 am Eastern Time. (It will be pre-dawn hours on Sundays in Australia.)

The capsule is expected to hit the ground a few minutes before noon.

In an interview, the mission manager, Makoto Yoshikawa, stated that there is an uncertainty of about 10 kilometers or about six miles in pinpointing, where the capsule will re-enter the atmosphere. At an altitude of six miles, the capsule would release a parachute, and where it would descend, it would add uncertainty.

“Landing place depends on the wind that day,” Dr. Yoshikawa said. He said that explorers may have to travel about 60 miles.

Superheat air fire shells created by the re-entering capsule will help guide the recovery team, as will the capsule’s radio beacon. If the beacon fails or if the parachute fails to deploy then the task will become much more difficult.

There is also a little crowd. The team hopes to recover the capsule, perform preliminary analysis and ship it back to Japan within 100 hours. Even though the capsule is sealed, the concern is that the Earth’s air will slowly go in. “There is no right seal,” Dr. Tachibana said.

Once the capsule is found, a helicopter will take it to a laboratory, which is set up at the Australian Air Force base in Woomera. An instrument will eject any gas within the capsule that can be released by the asteroid rocks as they are shaken and broken during re-entry. Dr. Yoshikawa said scientists would also like to see if they could detect any solar air particles of helium that slipped into the asteroid and fell into the rocks.

The gases also convinced scientists that Hayabusa 2 actually collected samples from Ryugu. A minimum of 0.1 grams or 1 ounce to 280 grams is required to declare success. The spacecraft is expected to bring back several grams.

In Japan, the Hayabusa 2 team will begin analysis of Ryugu samples. In about a year, some samples will be shared with other scientists for additional study.

To collect these samples, Hayabusa arrived at the asteroid on 2 June 2018. This carried out a series of investigations, each increasing technical complexity. It dropped the probe to the surface of Ryugu, exploding what has been down to the hole in the asteroid and twice exploding on the surface to grab small pieces of the asteroid that landed on the surface, an operation that was more challenging than expected because of many boulders Proved surface.

Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, part of JUAA, said little worlds like Ryagu were of little interest to planetary scientists studying planets. “Small body, who cares?” he said. “But if you’re serious about the formation of planetary systems, small bodies really matter.”

Studies of water trapped in Ryugu’s minerals may indicate whether water in Earth’s oceans came from asteroids, and if carbon-based molecules could give preference to building blocks for life.

A portion of the Ryugu samples will go to NASA, which is bringing back some rocks and soil from another asteroid with its OSIRIS-REX mission. The OSIRIS-REX Space Probe is studying a small carbon-rich asteroid named Bennu and it will return to Earth the following spring, dropping its rock samples in September 2023.

Ryugu and Bennu were surprisingly similar in some ways, both looking like spines and with surfaces covered with boulders, but different in other ways. The rocks of Ryugu hold very little water for one. The importance of similarity and difference will not be clear until scientists study the rocks in more detail.

“When the OSIRIS-REX sample comes back, we’ll have lessons learned from the Hayabusa 2 mission,” said Harold C., a professor of geology at Rowan University in New Jersey and mission sample scientist at OSIRIS-REX. Conolly Jr. said. “The similarities and differences are absolutely fascinating.”

Dr. Connolly hopes to go to Japan next summer to analyze Rugu samples.

Hayabusa 2 is not Japan’s first planetary mission. Indeed, its name alludes to the existence of Hayabusa, an earlier mission that brought samples back from another asteroid, Itokawa. But the mission, which began in 2003 and returned in 2010, faced major technical problems. So is Jaxa’s Akatsuki spacecraft, currently in orbit around Venus, which the Japanese agency succeeded in restoring a scientific mission after years of hardship. In 2003, a Japanese mission on Mars also failed.

In contrast, the Hayabusa 2’s operation has gone almost flawlessly, even though it retains the same general design as its predecessor. Mission Manager Dr. “Actually, there are no major problems,” Yoshikawa said. “Of course, small ones.”

He said the team studied the failures on Hayabusa in detail and made changes as needed, and also made several rehearsals to try to anticipate any contingencies that might occur.

Japanese missions typically operate on a smaller budget than NASA’s and thus often carry fewer equipment. The Hayabusa 2 costs less than $ 300 million while the OSIRIS-REX will cost around $ 1 billion.

Dropping Rygu samples is not the end of the Hayabusa 2 mission. After releasing the return capsule, the main spacecraft shifted course to avoid a collision with Earth, disappearing from a distance of 125 miles. It will now travel to another asteroid, a small 1998 KY26 designated only 100 feet in diameter, but rotate rapidly, completing a detour in less than 11 minutes.

Hayabusa 2 will use two flybys of Earth to propel themselves towards KY26, eventually arriving in 2031. It will conduct some astronomical experiments during its extended deep space travel, and the spacecraft still carries one last projectile that it can use to test the surface of that space rock.

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