Capsule with asteroid samples on course towards Earth

Capsule with asteroid samples on course towards Earth

Capsule with asteroid samples on course towards Earth

Employees of the Jaxa space agency are erecting an antenna for landing the capsule in Woomera, South Australia.

JAXA / dpa

The countdown is on: the Japanese space probe “Hayabusa2” has sent its precious cargo towards Earth – the first samples from the underground of an asteroid. Will the landing of the capsule with the 4.6 billion year old material work?

The Japanese space probe “Hayabusa2” detached a capsule containing samples from the asteroid Ryugu in space on Saturday and sent it on its way to Earth. As announced by the Japanese space agency Jaxa, the capsule with the 4.6 billion year old material from the earliest times of the solar system was successfully detached from the probe at a distance of 220,000 kilometers. She is supposed to land in an Australian desert in the evening (CET).

The capsule, awaited with great anticipation, contains two soil samples in separate chambers: from the surface of Ryugu and, for the first time, material from the underground of an asteroid. By analyzing samples from this near-earth asteroid, the scientists hope to uncover the origins of the solar system and life on earth. Ryugu stands for the underwater palace of a dragon king from a Japanese story.

Cheers and applause broke out in Jaxa headquarters at the news of the successful separation of the capsule. The container with a diameter of only 40 centimeters becomes a ball of fire in the evening (CET) when it enters the earth’s atmosphere and is slowed down. At an altitude of around ten kilometers above Australia, a parachute is to be deployed around 6.30 p.m. (CET). The capsule is supposed to float on it shortly afterwards in the Woomera target area in southern Australia. Jaxa has satellite dishes, drones and helicopters on site to pick up the radio signals from the capsule and to find the capsule after landing.

If all goes well, the capsule will be flown to Japan by plane; it will not be opened in Australia. The samples could contain organic material, said mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa. This could be “the source of life on earth”. There is also the possibility that such asteroids once brought water to our planet when they hit the earth. The German Aerospace Center (DLR) also took part in the mission with the “Mascot” lander developed in cooperation with the French space agency CNES. It landed on Ryugu in October 2018 and explored it – until its battery ran out.

Detailed analyzes of the material collected on Ryugu will begin next June. Japan’s Jaxa space agency will make some of the samples available to NASA and, in 2022, to researchers in other countries. The DLR is also planning its own investigations. A predecessor model of the “Hayabusa2” space probe brought soil samples from an asteroid to Earth for the first time in 2010.

The eagerly awaited landing of the capsule marks the end of the Ryugu mission, which began in December 2014 with the launch of “Hayabusa 2” from Japan. After almost four years in space, she had reached her destination some 300 million kilometers away. A year ago, «Hayabusa2 left Ryugu again. After the capsule has been separated, the probe now moves away from the earth in order to take pictures of the capsule. The probe then breaks to another near-Earth asteroid called “1998KY26”. It should arrive there in 10 years. So far, their mission has been a complete success.

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