Japan confirms its Hayabusa2 spacecraft returned Ryugu asteroid samples to Earth

Katie Ramirez
December 16, 2020

In this photo provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), a member of JAXA retrieves a capsule dropped by Hayabusa2 in Woomera, southern Australia, Dec. 6, 2020. On board, scientists hoped to find pieces of the asteroid Ryugu, collected millions of miles from Earth - and now JAXA has confirmed the mission was successful.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said its staff initially spotted some black particles sitting on the bottom of the capsule's sample catcher when they pulled out the container on Monday.

"These are thought to be the particles attached to the entrance to the sample holder (the container in which the sample is stored)".

The dust was found in the capsule's outer shell, agency officials said, with more substantial samples expected to be found when they open the inner container, a delicate task.

"One gram may sound small, but for us, one gram is huge", said Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the department of solar system sciences at JAXA, during an online briefing hosted by the Australian Science Media Centre.

Scientists hope the material will shed light on the formation of the universe and perhaps offer clues about how life began on Earth.

The capsule was seen entering our atmosphere.

The researchers also said that the gas contained in the storage unit was from the asteroid and that this is the first time that a sample of gas has been delivered from space to the Earth. The probe arrived at Ryugu in June 2018. It then deployed several landers to the surface, before attempting to touch itself and pick up the materials. Initial data from the probe suggests it might have scooped up around two kilograms or material. On the second attempt the spacecraft had previously blasted a crater in the asteroid to sample subsurface material.

This is the world's first sample return of a material in the gas state from deep space. It is only the second time that scientists have returned material from an asteroid. A sample was collected from this crater on July 11, 2019. "And these samples will occupy generations of researchers as a large amount will be kept for future generations that will benefit from the increase in technology and accuracy of the instruments used to analyze them".

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The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft was roughly the size of a small auto.

The 600-kg Hayabusa2, which was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan in December 2014, experienced no major problems throughout its journey totaling 3.2 billion kilometers.

The probe spent about a year and a half orbiting, observing and eventually landing on the asteroid, where it collected samples.

"We were able to confirm black, sand-like particles which are believed to be derived from the asteroid Ryugu".

Two days later, on December 8, the capsule was taken to the Sagamihar campus in Sagamihar, Kanagaba prefecture, Japan, where scientists have now begun the process of opening it.

The capsule container was the same size as a toaster.

But the main part of the mission has always been to return the sample to Earth.

The JAXA said it will continue with the opening of the container and conduct a detailed analysis of the molecular and isotopic composition of the collected gas.

And who knows what secrets lie in wait from this fascinating mission.

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