Japan capsule with asteroid samples retrieved in Australia

Material taken from the asteroid Ryugu could explain the origins of life on Earth.

Scientists celebrate the mission's success
Scientists celebrate the mission's success

Japan’s space agency said its helicopter search team has retrieved a capsule which is carrying asteroid samples that could explain the origin of life.

“The capsule collection work at the landing site was completed,” the space agency said in a tweet about four hours after the capsule landed.

”We practiced a lot for today… it ended safe.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Hayabusa2 had successfully released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it toward Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.

Early Sunday, the capsule briefly turned into a fireball as it re-entered the atmosphere 75 miles above Earth.

At about six miles above ground, a parachute was opened to slow its fall and beacon signals were transmitted to indicate its location.

“It was great… It was a beautiful fireball, and I was so impressed,” said JAXA’s Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda as he celebrated the successful capsule return and safe landing from a command centre in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.

“I’ve waited for this day for six years.”

Japan Asteroid
JAXA members celebrate at the command centre (JAXA/AP)

Beacon signals were detected, suggesting the parachute successfully opened and the capsule landed safely in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia, said JAXA official Akitaka Kishi.

About two hours after the capsule’s re-entry, JAXA said its helicopter search team found the capsule in the planned landing area.

The retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule, about 15 inches in diameter, was completed about two hours later.

The asteroid Ryugu
The asteroid Ryugu (JAXA/AP)

The fireball could be seen even from the International Space Station. A Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, who is now on a six-month mission there, tweeted: “Just spotted #hayabusa2 from #ISS! Unfortunately not bright enough for handheld camera, but enjoyed watching capsule!”

Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 180 million miles away, a year ago. After it released the capsule, it moved away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending toward the planet as it set off on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.

The capsule descended from 136,700 miles away in space after it was separated from Hayabusa2 in a challenging operation that required precision control.

Hayabusa2
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft (Jaxa/AP)

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.

Dozens of JAXA staff have been working in Woomera to prepare for the sample return. They set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area inside the Australian Air Force test field to receive the signals.

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 analysing 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. Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said 0.1 gram of the dust would be enough to carry out all planned researches.

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