Tips & News

A Japanese Space Mission Has Brought a Piece of Asteroid Down to Earth

By Jessica Poitevien

By
Dec 10, 2020

JAPAN HAS MADE HISTORY yet again—this time by bringing asteroid samples down to Earth. It’s only the second time in history that mankind has managed this difficult feat, and as for the first time? That sample was also captured and brought to Earth on a Japanese mission.

According to Space.com, a small capsule carrying pieces of the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu landed on December 5 within the remote Woomera Prohibited Area, about 500 kilometers northwest of the South Australian city of Adelaide. 

Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission started studying the 915-meter-wide Ryugu asteroid from up close in June 2018. Located millions of kilometers away, Hayabusa2 eventually captured its samples in November 2019, before beginning its journey back to Earth.

Ten years ago, Hayabusa2’s predecessor brought space rock samples home from the stony asteroid Itokawa. The yield was small—less than one milligram — but the Hayabusa2 capsule is expected to carry more than 100 milligrams of asteroid material. 

Australian Space Agency head Megan Clark and Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, attend a press conference in Woomera, South Australia on December 6, 2020, after samples collected from a distant asteroid arrived on Earth after being dropped off by Japanese space probe Hayabusa-2.
CREDIT: MORGAN SETTE/AFP VIA GETTY

“The materials that formed the Earth, its oceans, and life were present in the primordial cloud from which our solar system formed. In the early solar system, these materials were in contact and able to chemically interact within the same parent objects,” Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) officials wrote in a report, summarizing the Hayabusa2 mission.

“These interactions are retained even today in primitive bodies (C-type asteroids), so returning samples from these bodies for analysis will elucidate the origins and evolution of the solar system and the building blocks of life,” they added.

Beyond the amount of asteroid material that Hayabusa2 has brought home, the purity of the sample is also critical. Researchers already have access to plenty of meteorites, but these “free” asteroid samples have been significantly altered by their trip through Earth’s atmosphere, as well as their time on this planet’s surface, Space.com reports.

Hayabusa2 was recovered the day after it touched down in Australia. It will be delivered to the JAXA Extraterrestrial Sample Curation Center in Japan before pieces of the Ryugu materials are sent to labs around the world for other scientists to study. The hope is that this sample will help researchers understand the solar system’s early days and the rise of life on Earth.

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