It surprised, dazzled and disappeared in a flash. In the early hours of Sunday morning, local time, the sample capsule of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft plowed its way through the atmosphere over the Australian mining town of Coober Pedy and blazed a short-lived trail of fire through the sky.
Above the Lookout Cave Motel in the center of town, just before 4am. m. Local time (9:30 p. m. PT) about a dozen people gathered and mingled. Tripods were set up and the camera equipment was fine-tuned and aimed at the sky. Then a sparkling point of light appeared out of the darkness without a sound. It was moving fast. The crowd broke out with « oohs » and some pointed their phones at the sky.
The show’s rave people included Townsville-born Ross, 34, and his two sons, Max, 6, and Chase, 8. « It was pretty cool, » said Ross. « It was worth getting up early. «
The capsule contains the first underground sample of an asteroid. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed that the 16-inch container on the flat, ocher plains of the Woomera Prohibited Area more than 200 miles southeast of Coober Pedy by approx. 4:37 a.m. had landed. m. Local time (10:07 a. m. PT, Saturday).
The landing marks the culmination of a decade of work by JAXA scientists and engineers. Six years after Hayabusa2, about the size of a washing machine, left earth. The spaceship traveled over 3. 2 billion miles on its journey to the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu and back. For over a year, special cameras, radar, and an infrared imager were used to survey the rotating, pointed rock. In 2019, samples were collected twice from the surface in short maneuvers.
Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director of the JAXA Institute for Space and Astronautics (ISAS), says the mission was one of the defining moments in his life. By the time it came to an end, it was evident that the finals were breathtaking and the recovery operations would have been bittersweet.
There is still some work to be done, starting with making sure the contents of the capsule are safe. The rescue mission took place at dawn in the outback and confirmation of the collection of the capsule is still pending.
The Australian Space Agency and the Department of Defense (DOD) played an important role in the safe return of the capsule. The DOD manages the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA), a huge piece of land about half the size of the UK, where the capsule was kept after Hayabusa2 was released on Saturday. As a precaution, road closures prevented residents from driving through the region for almost 12 hours.
JAXA engineers tightened the final landing zone to an area about one-tenth that size, performing some nifty maneuvers as the spaceship returned to Earth.
The sample entered the earth’s atmosphere at around 7 a.m.. 5 miles per second, but when it hit the dense atmosphere it slowed to about 110 yards per second, threw off its heat shield and deployed its parachute. After about 20 minutes of gliding, it landed on the red, Mars-like levels of the WPA.
Michelle Xu Ke, who was watching from Williams Creek Road, sent me the following: Check out this dazzling cock from # Hayabusa2 !!! This is so cool and only from a camera phone. image. Twitter. com / L6ghHdGw2h
To make it easier to locate the sample capsule, Defense Force members held onto it as it first burned through the atmosphere, tracking it with ground cameras and radar. This enabled the JAXA team to locate the sample and have its helicopter team fly out and pick it up at approx. 4:47 a.m.. m. , local. The very first person honored to touch the capsule was a security officer, says Satoru Nakazawa, who led the recovery mission.
After purchasing the capsule, the recovery team quickly took it to a pop-up laboratory in the Woomera Range Operations Center known as the Quick Look Facility or QLF.
The team predicts that Hayabusa2 collected about a gram of material from Ryugu based on observations from the spacecraft’s cameras. Confirmation of what was caught during the two Hayabusa2 raids is expected in the coming weeks.
JAXA’s specialized retrieval team located the capsule at approx. 5:34 am. m. Local time and brought it back to the QLF for testing. According to JAXA’s Hayabusa2 Twitter account, all operations ended at 6:01 a.m.. m. local (11:31 a. m. PT). « The operation was perfect, » read the tweet.
Hajime Yano, researcher at ISAS, says the sample capsule will not be opened until it is returned to the ISAS facility in Japan. However, a device has been set up within the QLF to measure small amounts of gas in a sample in order to perform the initial analysis of the capsule.
The facility has a clean room and staff must be dressed head-to-toe in protective clothing – not because of concerns about long-dormant extraterrestrial asteroid disease or even COVID-19, but to protect the sample from any contamination. Upon return, Yano and his team pierced the bottom of the capsule to detect residual gas. With a preliminary analysis, researchers can determine whether Hayabusa2 has succeeded in tearing pieces of rock and debris from the surface of Ryugu.
Fujimoto says the capsule will be released sometime in Japan « around the 20th. December is pried around « . « The contents of the capsule are intended to improve our understanding of the early solar system and the earth.
Previous observations by Hayabusa2 on Ryugu have shown that the asteroid contains traces of aquiferous minerals. Some scientists believe this may have been the reason for how water was brought to the surface of the earth and possibly how organic matter rained on the early planets and started life.
Many JAXA team members will now turn their attention to Phobos and Deimos, two moons of Mars. The Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) mission is scheduled to start in 2024 and is expected to return a sample of Phobos’ surface by 2029.
The mission will include partnerships with NASA, the French Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA). . There will likely be another important partner as well: Australia. Although not officially confirmed, Fujimoto has indicated that these samples will end up in the outback as well.
« With my experience this time around, I’m really inclined to have Woomera as a landing site, » he said. « We want to keep working together. «
According to Fujimoto, the interests of JAXA and the interests of the Australian space agency are closely linked. Megan Clark, Head of Australia’s Space Agency, is thrilled to keep Japan-Australia connected so that the country’s fledgling agency can continue to grow.
« International partnerships are central to us, » she said. « We cannot change our own space industry and create jobs here without deep international partnerships. «
Hayabusa2’s sample return mission has ended, but the spaceship has not been retired. JAXA engineers and scientists will direct the probe to two more asteroids over the next decade. And maybe another Hayabusa mission is in the works. JAXA employees have dropped tempting hints that the duology could become a trilogy in the future. Will we see a Hayabusa3? That is a definite possibility.
A press conference on sample recovery is scheduled for 11 p.m.. m. PT on Saturday with Megan Clark, Fujimoto and other representatives from JAXA. You can find the stream below.
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Asteroid, Hayabusa2, JAXA, Earth, Japan, 162173 Ryugu
World news – AU – Japan’s Hayabusa2 asteroid sample lands perfectly in the Australian outback
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