Science & Technology

Japanese space probe drops ancient asteroid samples to Earth

(Update 1 adds that capsule has been released, updates headline, lede, minor edits)

Tokyo, Dec 5 (efe-epa).- After traveling through space for six years to investigate the origins of the solar system, the Japanese probe Hayabusa2 released to fall to Earth on Saturday a capsule with samples of a remote asteroid that it took last year.

The samples were taken from the remote asteroid Ryugu, located 340 million kilometers from Earth, in a project undertaken by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The probe, with a weight of about 600 kilograms and spanning 1.6 meters on its largest side (without the solar panels extended), was launched on Dec. 3, 2014, and is the successor to another that in June 2010 brought samples from the asteroid Itokawa to Earth.

Hayabusa2 was in the vicinity of Ryugu for a year and a half, and first landed on its surface on Feb. 22, 2019, and again on July 11, 2019.

The samples it took there are stored inside a capsule that Hayabusa2 released Saturday to fall into a desert in southern Australia. It is expected to land early Sunday, completing the key stage of its mission, before continuing to explore space.

The first step in this operation was successfully completed as planned when Hayabusa2 separated from the capsule at 2.30 pm Tokyo time (05:30 GMT), as confirmed by JAXA, about 12 hours before it is to land in Australia.

As a result, those in charge of monitoring the trajectory of the probe took the necessary steps for Hayabusa2 to change its course to progressively move away from Earth. When it detached from the capsule, the probe was about 222,000 kilometers from the planet.

The capsule package is not very big, since the samples only weigh 1 gram, but they include debris from the surface and the world’s first sub-surface asteroid samples.

JAXA scientists hope that the samples will reveal details about the origin of the solar system and, beyond, the origin of life.

“We sealed the capsule very tightly, but still gas samples can be lost easily,” said Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, at a press conference on Friday.

“We don’t want to miss anything,” he added.

Once recovered on the ground, the capsule with the samples will be transported to military facilities in the Australian town of Woomera and then forwarded to Japan.

Although Ryugu is about 4.6 billion years old, it is believed to have gone through minimal changes since the formation of the solar system, so it could be an example of meteorites that may have impacted early Earth.

Ryugu – the name of a magical undersea palace in Japanese folklore – is about 900 meters in diameter and slightly cubic in shape, and considered among the oldest bodies in the solar system.

Scientists believe that Earth was too close to the sun when it was formed for water to condense, but once it cooled, both water and organic materials were brought to the planet by asteroids like Ryugu.

Once the Ryugu samples are dropped, Hayabusa2 will continue its exploration, heading to another remote asteroid named 1998KY26. EFE-EPA


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