A small capsule containing asteroid soil samples that was dropped from space by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft and landed in the Australian Outback arrived Tuesday in Japan for research into the origin of the solar system and life on Earth.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said its capsule, tightly sealed and carefully stored in a container box, arrived in Japan on a flight from Australia attended by a group of JAXA officials and was later taken its research facility in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.
At the end of its year-long journey from asteroid Ryugu, more than 300 million kilometres from Earth, Hayabusa2 released the capsule Saturday from 220,000 km in space, successfully sending it to land on a targeted area in a sparsely populated desert in Woomera.
The extremely high precision work at the end of Hayabusa2’s six-year mission thrilled many Japanese.
Launched in December 2014, the unmanned Hayabusa2 spacecraft touched down twice last year on the asteroid Ryugu. Despite an unexpectedly rocky surface that even forced the mission’s team to revise landing plans, the spacecraft successfully collected data and soil samples from two locations – on the surface and from underground.
Scientists say the samples, especially ones taken from under the asteroid’s surface, contain data from 4.6 billion years ago unaffected by pace radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in studying organic materials in the samples to learn about how they were distributed in the solar system and if or how they are related to life on Earth.
The samples will be treated in a clean room at the Sagamihara facility to avoid any external impact, and the work is expected to start soon. After initial studies and curation in Japan, some of the samples will be shared with NASA and other international scientists for further study.
Outside the JAXA’s facility in Sagamihara, senior members of the Hayabusa2 team and local fans lined up at the gate Tuesday and welcomed the arrival of the capsule, transported from the airport on a truck, some holding up a sign saying “Welcome back!”
“It’s really like a dream,” said Yuichi Tsuda, the Hayabusa2 project manager. “After 5.2 billion km of space journey which took six years, (the capsule) has returned and now it’s in front of me.”
The capsule is set to be analyzed at the facility beginning later this month.