Japan Retrieves Space Capsule Full of Asteroid Samples in Australia

The successful landing marks the completion of Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission, which studied the 3,000-foot-wide asteroid Ryugu

Japanese space capsule returning to Earth
A Japanese space capsule seen falling back to Earth over Australia. The capsule, released from the JAXA space probe Hayabusa2, contains samples of an asteroid called Ryugu that is located roughly 180 million miles from our planet. MORGAN SETTE / AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday, a capsule released by Japan’s Hayabusa2 space probe successfully returned to Earth with samples from the asteroid Ryugu, reports Mari Yamaguchi for the Associated Press (AP). The capsule landed in Woomera, a remote section of the Australian Outback, where it was swiftly retrieved by JAXA, Japan’s space agency, with support from Australia’s own space agency and military.

The arrival of the samples from Ryugu, which weigh approximately one gram, marks the successful end of a six-year, 3.25 billion-mile mission to rendezvous with the jet black, roughly half-mile-wide rock as it hurtles through space, report Colin Dwyer and Jason Slotkin for NPR.

The space probe Hayabusa2 departed from the asteroid a year ago and then traveled roughly 180 million miles back towards Earth to release the capsule containing the samples collected from Ryugu. Once Hayabusa2 jettisoned the capsule, about 125,000 miles from Earth, the spacecraft set off on a new mission to another asteroid called 1998KY26, per the AP.

For the New York Times, Kenneth Chang reports that the mission “aims to shed light on the earliest eons of the solar system and possibly provide clues about the origins of life on Earth.”

Per NPR, these lofty scientific goals are afforded by the carbon-rich asteroid’s composition, which is thought to include organic matter similar to the ancient space rocks that smashed together to form planets. Studying the samples may allow scientists to “approach the secrets of the birth of the solar system and the birth of life,” according to a statement from JAXA.

Part of what makes the samples from Ryugu special is the inclusion of the world’s first ever subsurface materials collected directly from the asteroid, per the AP. These subsurface samples were sealed up before they encountered Earth’s atmosphere or were bombarded by space radiation, which researchers hope means that the organic compounds, such as simple amino acids, will remain pristine and uncontaminated.

In 2018, Hayabusa2 arrived at Ryugu, which means “Dragon Palace” in Japanese and is the name of a sea-bottom castle in a Japanese folk tale. The spacecraft dropped probes to Ryugu’s surface and, in 2019, blasted a crater in Ryugu’s rocky surface to look beneath its crust and to use as a landing pad, according to the Times.

Per the Times, an airplane ferried the asteroid samples back to Japan on Monday night. Once the samples arrive, the Hayabusa2 team will begin studying the Ryugu samples for about a year, after which time some of the samples will be shared with other scientists for further analysis.

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