The Japanese probe has successfully downloaded strange samples taken from Earth from a distant asteroid, which may tell us about the birth of our universe.
The Hayabusa-2 probe (“big hawk” in Japanese) was launched in 2014 and last year took a hundred milligram particles from the asteroid Ryugu (“dragon’s palace”), located at more than 300 million. Miles from the ground.
Scientists hope that these samples, encased in a small capsule thrown into the Earth from Saturday to Sunday night, will provide information about the solar system when it was born 4.6 billion years ago.
The composition of large celestial bodies like Earth changes radically after its creation, due to temperature and pressure, unlike much smaller asteroids, explained mission head Makoto Yoshikawa.
“So we can think that 4.6 billion years of substances are still there.” We could say that the presence of organic material could be possible how life came to Earth, he added.
Like a shooting star
The capsule containing the samples entered the Earth’s atmosphere before 2:30 a.m. Sunday before Japanese time (5:30 p.m. GMT Saturday), creating a trail of shooting stars in the sky.
This small container was separated from the probe on Saturday and the Japanese space agency (Jaxa) said on Sunday morning that Woomera was recovered thanks to beacons from the desert (southern Australia). “After a six-year space trip, we were able to bring a treasure chest this morning,” said project director Yuichi Tsuda in a press conference.
Ms Megan Clark, head of the Australian space agency, said it was a “wonderful achievement” as 2020 was a “difficult year” with the virus.
Protected by sunlight and radiation, the samples will be subjected to preliminary tests in Australia, mainly to detect gas emissions, before being sent to Japan by plane.
During its mission, the refrigerator-sized probe in 2019 collected from the asteroid dust and substances obtained from surface drilling.
Half of the material collected will be distributed among Jaxa, Nasa and international organizations, and the rest will be reserved for future studies as analytical technologies progress.
“We have never had such a material (…) water and organic matter will be studied”, said Motoo Ito, a researcher at the Marine Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.
A series of orbits that have been around the sun for about six years
After the express delivery, the probe’s work is not finished: scientists from the Japanese space agency plan to extend it by more than ten years by focusing on two new asteroids.
According to Yuichi Tsuda, Hayabusa-2, which remains in a “clean state,” will make a series of orbits around the sun in the first six years or so to record data about interplanetary dust and observe exoplanets.
The probe will approach its first target in July 2026. Although the 2001 CC21 has been kept at a certain distance from the asteroid, scientists still hope to be able to take pictures “while it is passing at high speed.”
Hayabusa-2 will then launch towards its main target, 1998 KY26, a spherical asteroid with a diameter of 30 meters. When the probe reaches it in July 2031, it will be about 300 million kilometers from Earth.
Prolonging its mission carries risks, especially seeing equipment deteriorate in deep space.
The probe is the successor to JAXA’s first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa. In 2010, this probe brought dust from a smaller, potato-shaped asteroid, after a seven-year odyssey, already taken as a scientific feat.
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