Hayabusa2 brings back first-ever gas sample from deep space

Katie Ramirez
December 18, 2020

We're happy to report that the re-entry capsule recently returned to Earth by Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft did indeed contain a number of goodies collected from the Ryugu asteroid previous year as it hurtled through space hundreds of millions of miles from Earth.

Then, by Tuesday, they found more of the soil and gas samples in a compartment that stored those from the first of Hayabusa's two touchdowns on the asteroid a year ago.

"We have confirmed a good amount of sand apparently collected from the asteroid Ryugu, along with gases", JAXA Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda said. That Hayabusa2 managed to scoop up some actual pebbles, and not just dust, was deemed a big victory, with JAXA scientist Hirotaka Sawada saying he "was nearly speechless" at the sight, reports AP.

In the early hours of 6 December, a brilliant fireball streaked through the southern skies and landed in the desert in South Australia, setting off a race to locate the capsule that scientists hoped contained material from Ryugu. "From here, we will move to chamber CC3-3, remove the samples from chamber A in a nitrogen environment, and open chambers B and C". On Monday (Dec. 14), the JAXA team confirmed that the gas sample matched their original analysis, confirming that they had acquired the first-ever gases captured from deep space.

Half of Hayabusa-2's samples will be shared between JAXA, US space agency NASA and other global organisations.

The agency also said that it succeeded in extracting from the capsule a sample of gas taken from the Ryugu asteroid, describing it as "the world's first sample return of a material in the gas state from deep space".

Asteroid samples leave Japan scientists 'speechless'

The gas is likely to have originated from the collected samples, JAXA later said.

In February 2019, Hayabusa2 achieved the first of two landings on the 900-meter-wide asteroid, collecting a sample of granules from its surface.

Supplied photo shows black particles in the capsule brought back by the Hayabusa2 space probe.

During one of those sampling attempts, the spacecraft grabbed rocks from the asteroid's surface; during the second, it shot a copper bullet into the asteroid to uncover subsurface material. It was recovered in a remote area of Australia and delivered to the Tokyo-based Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) last week. Its unexpected hue even forced controllers to adjust the laser altitude sensor used when the spacecraft approached the asteroid's surface. Each was stored separately.

Furthermore, the Japanese space agency has also provided definitive evidence that the samples from the Hayabusa2 spacecraft are indeed from the asteroid. After studies are completed in Japan, some of the samples will be shared with other space agencies such as NASA for research to begin in 2022.

So far, Jaxa has estimated to have collected 1 to 2 grams of the substance, or 10 to 20 times more than the expected 100 milligrams.

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