A Japanese mission to collect the first samples of asteroid subsurface has been a success, after the capsule carrying the material landed safely in the Australian Outback.
The spacecraft Hayabusa2 released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it towards Earth to deliver samples taken from below the surface of asteroid Ryugu, which it departed a year ago some 300 million kilometers from Earth.
It is a first in space history - the successful collection of underground samples from an asteroid, which are some of the oldest objects in the solar system, and so could provide information about how the solar system evolved.
Hayabusa2 touched down twice on Ryugu, first to collect dust samples in February 2019, and then to conduct the more difficult work of collecting subsurface material in July that year.
To do this it blasted a crater in the asteroid’s surface before landing in it.
Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace,” the name of a sea-bottom castle in a Japanese folk tale.
The capsule carrying the precious space cargo landed successfully in the remote Australian Outback, in the sparsely populated area of Woomera in southern Australia.
About two hours after the reentry, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said its helicopter search team found the capsule in the planned landing area. The retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule, about 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter, was completed after another two hours.
“The capsule collection work at the landing site was completed," the agency said in a tweet. "We practiced a lot for today ... it ended safe."
The capsule descended from 220,000 kilometers away after it was separated from Hayabusa2 in a challenging operation that required precision control.
JAXA officials said they hoped to conduct a preliminary safety inspection at an Australian lab and bring the capsule back to Japan early next week.
The return of the capsule with the world’s first asteroid subsurface samples comes weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made a successful touch-and-go grab of surface samples from asteroid Bennu.
China, meanwhile, announced this week its lunar lander collected underground samples and sealed them within the spacecraft for return to Earth, as space developing nations compete in their missions.
Thomas Zurbuchen, a Swiss-American astrophysicist and the associated administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, congratulated the Japan space agency and “the many individuals in Japan and beyond who made this possible.”
Zurbuchen wrote on Twitter: “Together, we’ll gain a better understanding of the origins of our solar system, & the source of water & organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth.”
Scientists say they believe the samples, especially ones taken from under the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in the samples.
JAXA hopes to find clues to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth.
Makoto Yoshikawa, the Hayabusa2 project mission manager, said 0.1 gram of the dust would be enough to carry out all planned research.
For Hayabusa2, it’s not the end of the mission it started in 2014. It is now heading to a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years one way, for possible research including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.