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Asteroid dust collected by Japan probe arrives on Earth
This handout photograph taken and released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on December 6, 2020 shows the recovered re-entry capsule, carrying samples collected from a distant asteroid after being dropped off by Japanese space probe Hayabusa-2, following its landing in South Australia.
AFP/JAXA, Handout

Asteroid dust collected by Japan probe arrives on Earth

Kyoko Hasegawa (Agence France-Presse) - December 6, 2020 - 11:46am

TOKYO, Japan — In a streak of light across the night sky, samples collected from a distant asteroid arrived on Earth Sunday after being dropped off by Japanese space probe Hayabusa-2.

Scientists hope the precious samples, which are expected to amount to no more than 0.1 grams of material, could help shed light on the origin of life and the formation of the universe.

The capsule carrying samples entered the atmosphere just before 2:30 am Japan time (1730 GMT Saturday), creating a shooting-star-like fireball as it entered Earth's atmosphere en route to a landing site in Australia.

"Six years and it has finally come back to Earth," an official narrating a live broadcast of the arrival said, as images showed officials from Japan's space agency JAXA cheering and pumping their fists in excitement.

A few hours later, JAXA confirmed the samples had been recovered, with help from beacons emitted by the capsule as it plummeted to Earth after separating from Hayabusa-2 on Saturday, while the fridge-sized probe was some 220,000 kilometres (137,000 miles) away.

"We found the capsule! Together with the parachute! Wow!" the mission's Twitter account announced.

People who had gathered at a public viewing site near JAXA's office in suburban Tokyo — despite the event taking place a few hours after midnight — also erupted with cheers.

"I'm extremely happy because the capsule has returned home safely, Hayabusa-2 did a great job," a primary school boy said.

The capsule was recovered in the southern Australian desert, and will now be in the hands of scientists performing initial, non-invasive analysis including checking for any gas emissions.

It will then be sent to Japan.

Samples with organic material?

The samples were collected by Hayabusa-2, which launched in 2014, from the asteroid Ryugu, some 300 million kilometres from Earth.

The probe collected both surface dust and pristine material from below the surface that was stirred up by firing an "impactor" into the asteroid.

The material is believed to be unchanged since the time the universe was formed.

Larger celestial bodies like Earth went through radical changes including heating and solidifying, changing the composition of the materials on their surface and below.

But "when it comes to smaller planets or smaller asteroids, these substances were not melted, and therefore it is believed that substances from 4.6 billion years ago are still there," Hayabusa-2 mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa told reporters before the capsule arrived.

Scientists are especially keen to discover whether the samples contain organic matter, which could have helped seed life on Earth.

"We still don't know the origin of life on Earth and through this Hayabusa-2 mission, if we are able to study and understand these organic materials from Ryugu, it could be that these organic materials were the source of life on Earth," Yoshikawa said.

"We've never had materials like this before... water and organic matters will be subject to research, so this is a very valuable opportunity," said Motoo Ito, senior researcher at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.

Half of Hayabusa-2's samples will be shared between JAXA, US space agency NASA and other international organisations, and the rest kept for future study as advances are made in analytic technology.

More tasks for Hayabusa-2

The work is not over for Hayabusa-2, which will now begin an extended mission targeting two new asteroids.

It will complete a series of orbits around the sun for around six years before approaching the first of the asteroids — named 2001 CC21 — in July 2026.

The probe will not get as close as it did to Ryugu, but scientists hope it will be able to photograph CC21 and that the fly-by will help develop knowledge about how to protect Earth against asteroid impact.

Hayabusa-2 will then head towards its main target, 1998 KY26, a ball-shaped asteroid with a diameter of just 30 metres.

When the probe arrives at the asteroid in July 2031, it will be approximately 300 million kilometres from Earth.

It will observe and photograph the asteroid, no easy task given that it is spinning rapidly, rotating on its axis about every 10 minutes.

But Hayabusa-2 is unlikely to land and collect samples, as it probably would not have enough fuel to return them to Earth.

ASTEROID JAPAN OUTER SPACE
As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: February 19, 2021 - 7:53am

Monitor major developments on space explorations and the status of missions.

February 19, 2021 - 7:53am

US President Joe Biden hails the "historic" landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars as proof of the power of science and "American ingenuity." 

"Congratulations to NASA and everyone whose hard work made Perseverance's historic landing possible. Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility," he tweets.

February 19, 2021 - 6:51am

NASA says the Perseverance rover has touched down on the surface of Mars after successfully overcoming a risky landing phase known as the "seven minutes of terror."

"Touchdown confirmed," says operations lead Swati Mohan at around 3:55 pm Eastern Time (2055 GMT) as mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory headquarters erupted in cheers.

The autonomously-guided procedure was completed more than 11 minutes earlier, which is how long it takes for radio signals to return to Earth. —  AFP

December 6, 2020 - 12:44pm

A Chinese probe carrying samples from the lunar surface successfully docks Sunday with a spacecraft orbiting the moon, in another space first for the nation, state media reports.

The manoeuvre was part of the ambitious Chang'e-5 mission — named after a mythical Chinese Moon goddess — to bring back the first lunar samples in four decades.

The cargo capsule carrying lunar rocks and soil lifted off from the surface on Thursday, and docked with the orbiter on Sunday morning, the official Xinhua news agency says, citing the China National Space Administration. —  AFP

December 3, 2020 - 5:24pm

A Chinese space probe sent to gather material from a previously unexplored part of the moon has completed its mission and is preparing to send back the world's first lunar samples in four decades, Beijing says Thursday.

China has poured billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually sending humans to the Moon.

The Chang'e-5 spacecraft, named after the mythical Chinese moon goddess, landed on the moon Tuesday and has now completed its gathering of lunar rocks and soil, the China National Space Administration says. —  AFP

November 16, 2020 - 12:53pm

A SpaceX rocket successfully lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday with four astronauts on board, bound for the International Space Station.

It is the second manned flight by SpaceX, a private company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk that will now carry NASA astronauts into space after nine years of American dependence on Russian Soyuz rockets. — AFP

 

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