The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) says it has begun opening the capsule back to Earth through its historic Hayabusa 2 mission – and has confirmed that asteroid samples are inside.
Today, Monday, December 14, the capsule was opened for the first time since it touched down on the Australian outback on December 6 after traveling through space.
On board, scientists were hoping to discover fragments of the asteroid Ryugus, collected millions of kilometers away from Earth – and now Jaxa has confirmed that the mission was a success.
“A black granular sample was assumed to have been obtained from the asteroid Ryugu was confirmed inside the sample container,” Jaxa said in a brief statement.
“This is considered to be a particle attached to the entrance to the sample catcher (the container in which the sample is stored).”
The whole capsule itself has not yet opened, which means more asteroid samples are probably waiting inside.
But just confirming that any samples were collected is fantastic news, as Jaxa was not sure how successful the sample capture was.
Scientists will now spend years studying the sample in hopes of learning more about the origins of Ryugur and the origin of life on Earth.
Hayabusa 2 was launched in 2014 on a mission to collect samples from Ryugu – the second attempt to collect material from an asteroid in Japan from the most successful Hayabusa 1 in 2010.
Another mission, NASA’s OSIRIS-RX, is set to return material from another asteroid, Bennu, in 2023.
After a four-year voyage, the spacecraft arrived in Ryugu in June 2018. It then placed multiple landers on the surface, before trying to touch itself and trying to scoop up the elements.
It did this once or twice, once in February 2019 and again in July 2019, by scattering a projectile shot on the surface and collecting the material in a long sample arm in the container of the capsule.
The second incident was particularly significant, as the spacecraft previously blasted a straw into the asteroid to reveal the element of the initial planetary surface in an attempt to collect.
This element should be the beginning of the solar system, possibly revealing that if an asteroid like Ryugur could provide the building blocks of life on Earth.
Scientists are also interested in finding out if asteroids like Ryugur contain large amounts of water, as well as rocks like the mysterious seed called condroles.
Although there was no way to know if the two attempts to collect any samples of the spacecraft were successful.
Scientists only expected to collect about one gram of material from the asteroid, but how long – if any – the sample was on board before the return of Hayabusa 2.
After launching the asteroid in November 2019, Hayabusa 2 finally returned to Earth in December 2020.
Here it unveiled the sample capsule, which re-entered our atmosphere on December 6 and reached Australia, where it was collected by scientists.
After the touchdown, gas was sucked from the capsule, which could be volatile from asteroids like the water studied.
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.
Hayabusa 2, meanwhile, returned to space on an extended mission to explore the smallest asteroid visited by the spacecraft, none larger than a blue whale.
But the main part of the mission is always to return the sample to Earth. And now that the presence of a sample in the capsule has been confirmed, exciting analysis of the sample may begin soon.
“We will try to open the sample catcher in the sample container, and the correction and preliminary analysis team will extract and analyze the sample,” Jaxa said in a statement.
And who knows what secrets lie in wait from this fascinating mission.
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