Bengaluru: Samples collected from the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometres away, by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft arrived safely near Woomera in Australia, in the early hours of Sunday.
Samples of both surface dust and material from below the surface, that was stirred up when the spacecraft had fired two impactors into the asteroid, were collected.
— HAYABUSA2@JAXA (@haya2e_jaxa) December 5, 2020
The probe had collected the samples in the first half of 2019. The Hayabusa2 stored them in a separate sealed container that was detached from the craft about 220,000 km from Earth and subsequently landed in the Australian outback using parachutes.
The Royal Australian Air Force tracked the 16 kg-container’s beacon in the wee hours of Sunday morning. The container was taken to a nearby facility for a quick analysis before being flown to Japan.
— Australian Space Agency (@AusSpaceAgency) December 6, 2020
Hayabusa2 had left the one kilometre-wide Ryugu to return to Earth in November 2019. The mission follows in the footsteps of the first Hayabusa mission, which had returned samples from the asteroid Itokawa in 2010.
Ryugu’s samples will be split between JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), the US space agency NASA, and other international research institutes.
Asteroids give information on solar system
Hayabusa-2, which was launched in 2014, still retains about 30 kg of its xenon propellant from its original 66 kg. The spacecraft is now on an extended mission with two new asteroid targets, a fly-by of (98943) 2001 CC21 in July 2026 and a rendezvous with 1998 KY26 in July 2031.
2001 CC21, a rare L-type asteroid, will be photographed in detail during a high-speed fly-by. 1998 KY26, however, will be the first target that is a fast rotating micro-asteroid.
Materials from asteroids are considered very precious for research as these small bodies were leftovers from the early formation of our solar system. These have since remained pristine and unchanged, because asteroids and other smaller bodies did not undergo the same metamorphic changes that planets did.
Analysis of the composition of these asteroids and other smaller bodies gives insights into the formation, evolution, and the likely future of our solar system.
Asteroid samples are important candidates for studying both the origin of water as well as origin of life on Earth. It was long believed that comets deposited the first water droplets on Earth, but recent findings have shown that asteroids carried water to early Earth.