Japan’s Hayabusa2 brings back dust and rock samples from asteroid

Japanese scientists confirm black material from asteroid Ryugu inside one of the Hayabusa2’s three collection chambers. Credit: JAXA

Japanese space scientists are positively gleeful as they have now confirmed that their ambitious Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully collected over 5 grams of pristine black as coal soil and rock samples gathered from the ancient near-earth asteroid Ryugu in a re-entry capsule that parachuted safely to Earth earlier this month after a six-year roundtrip scientific journey – as confirmed by officials with the mission operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA.

The 5.4 grams of bountiful black material collected from just the first sample chamber to be opened so far is already far in excess of the mission goal of 0.1 grams or 100 milligrams !! – And thus will allow Japanese scientists to carry out very wide-ranging scientific studies to determine the composition and chemical makeup in extremely excellent minute analytical detail with the most powerful and advanced instruments available to researchers on Earth.

The precious cache of black colored asteroid dust and pebbles is thought to possess organic materials from the carbonaceous asteroid that could help answer very important scientific questions and potentially hold clues to the origin of life on Earth and the early evolution of our solar system.

Photo of the fireball created by the reentry of Japanese Hayabusa2 sample return canister into Earth’s atmosphere on Dec. 5, 2020 – captured on-site in the Woomera Prohibited Area in remote south Australia by the mission team. Credit: JAXA/Hayabusa2 team

“On December 15, 2020, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was able to confirm that a sample originating from asteroid Ryugu that was gathered during the first touchdown operation, was collected in sample chamber A within the sample container in the re-entry capsule of the asteroid explorer, Hayabusa2,” JAXA officials confirmed in a press release with images.

Japan’s ambitious Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully delivered a sample return capsule to a safe landing in the remote Australian outback on Dec. 5, after surviving a scorching reentry plunge that created a dazzling fireball as it streaked through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The return capsule was quickly located and retrieved and then shipped and delivered to a secure laboratory and processing facility in Japan, JAXA announced.

The Hayabusa2 re-entry capsule touched down at the Woomera Test Range in Australia, concluding a mission of 5.24 billion kilometers (3.25 billion miles). Credit: JAXA

JAXA released an image of the dust and rock collected in the first of three sample canisters that have been opened so far.

“The samples from asteroid Ryugu in the re-entry capsule weigh about 5.4g! This greatly exceeds the target yield of 0.1g (the amount required for the initial scientific analysis) set during the design of Hayabusa2,” the mission team tweeted.

“A large number of particles are confirmed to be in “sample chamber A” inside the collected capsule (~11:10 JST on 12/15). This is thought to be the sample from the first touchdown on Ryugu. The photo looks brown, but our team says “black”! The sample return is a great success!”

Search members locate and safely recover the Hayabusa2 re-entry capsule. Credit: JAXA

“The Hayabusa2 re-entry capsule was recovered in Woomera, Australia on December 6, 2020, and transported to the JAXA Sagamihara Campus on December 8. After this, work proceeded with opening the sample container within the re-entry capsule. On December 15 at 11:00 JST, chamber A in the sample container was opened and it was confirmed to contain the sample from asteroid Ryugu that is thought to have been collected and stored during the time of the first touchdown (February 22, 2019).”

This team tweet shows the sample canister A about to be opened with asteroid grains visible on the outside.

There are two more sample collection chambers yet to be opened – B and C. At least one should hold samples from the second touchdown site.

“We will continue with opening sample chambers B and C within the sample container, and the sample will be removed and analyzed by the curation group and initial analysis team.”

The Hayabusa team released several photos and a brief statement about the recovery of the reentry capsule.

The Hayabusa2 re-entry capsule is placed into a protective case for transport back to Japan where the regolith from the asteroid will be studied. Credit: JAXA

“Capsule collection! The helicopter team immediately flew to the location identified by the DFS team. They searched for the fallen capsule by using radio waves and maps. Thank you very much!” tweeted the Hayabusa2 team.

Hayabusa2 was launched on a Japanese H-IIA rocket in Dec. 2014. It arrived in orbit around the asteroid during June 2018 and spent a year and a half studying the 900-meter diameter carbonaceous asteroid Ryugu.

Asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of 6km. The image was captured with the Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic (ONC-T) on July 20, 2018

The mission accomplished two touch-and-go sample landings in 2019 – firing a five-gram tantalum projectile to eject dust into the one-meter long sample collection horn on the second collection involving subsurface material.

Three rovers and landers from Japanese, German and French researchers were deployed to the surface in 2018 and 2019.

The spacecraft departed Ryugu in Nov. 2019 for a one-year trip back to Earth, followed by the successful reentry and landing of the sample capsule that was collected on the ground by JAXA.

At the conclusion of the broadcast, JAXA announced that the Hayabusa2 mothership spacecraft will live on and has been approved for an extended mission to two additional asteroids. The spacecraft’s path has been deflected from Earth to enable the meetup in July 2031 with asteroid 1998 KY26 a tiny 30-meter wide celestial body.

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