The Hayabusa2 mission solidifies Japan’s role in exploring the solar system, but finding its asteroid cargo is a final challenge.
Japan’s space agency nears the end of a journey of discovery aimed at shedding light on the earliest aeons of the solar system and possibly providing clues as to the origins of life on earth.
But first you have to go on a scavenger hunt in the Australian outback.
Parts of an asteroid land in a barren region near Woomera, South Australia this weekend. These are brought to Earth by Hayabusa2, a robotic spacecraft launched in 2014 by JAXA, Japan’s space agency, to explore an asteroid called Ryugu, a dark, carbon-rich rock that is just over half a mile wide.
JAXA broadcasts the landing of the capsule live. Or you can watch it in the video player below:
The capsule was discovered on re-entry into the atmosphere around 12:29 p.m.. m. Easter time. In a live video feed from Australia, which is the Sunday before sunrise, the capsule quickly grazed the sky, and a tail poured behind it as the atmosphere warmed its surface. Minutes later, the mission managers discovered a radio signal from a beacon in the capsule.
The success of the mission and the science that generates it will strengthen Japan’s status as a key player in space exploration alongside NASA, the European Space Agency and Russia. JAXA currently has a spacecraft in orbit around Venus exploring the hellish climate of this planet and is working with the Europeans on a mission en route to Mercury.
In the coming years, Japan plans to bring back stones from Phobos, a moon on Mars, and contribute to NASA’s Artemis program to send astronauts to Earth’s moon.
But the immediate challenge will be to look in the dark for a 16-inch-wide capsule that contains the asteroid samples somewhere in the midst of hundreds of square miles in a region 280 miles north of Adelaide, the nearest major city.
« It’s really in the middle of nowhere, » said Shogo Tachibana, the lead researcher responsible for analyzing the Hayabusa2 samples. He is part of a team of more than 70 people from Japan who have come to Woomera to restore the capsule. The area used for testing by the Australian military offers a wide open space ideal for returning an interplanetary probe.
The small return capsule separated from the main spaceship at 12:30 p.m.. m. Eastern time, about 12 hours before scheduled landing, when it was about 125. Was 000 miles from Earth. Mission managers confirmed the capsule’s ejection with data reflected back from the spaceship, as well as with visual assistance from telescopes such as one at Kyoto University in Japan.
Soichi Noguchi, a Japanese astronaut who joined the crew of the International Space Station after a trip in a SpaceX capsule in November, said he spotted Hayabusa2 from orbit:
In an interview, Makoto Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said there is an uncertainty of about 10 kilometers, or about six miles, to determine exactly where the capsule will go back into the atmosphere. At a height of six miles, the capsule releases a parachute, and where it drifts on the descent adds uncertainty.
« The landing site depends on the wind that day, » said Dr. . Yoshikawa said. The area that seekers might need to cover could stretch for 60 miles, he said.
The trail of the fireball of overheated air created by the re-entering capsule helps the rescue team, as does the capsule’s radio beacon. The task becomes much more difficult when the beacon fails or the parachute cannot be deployed.
There’s also a bit of a rush. The team hopes to recover the capsule, perform an initial analysis and bring it back to Japan within 100 hours. Although the capsule is sealed, there is concern that earth air is slowly entering. « There is no such thing as a perfect seal, » said Dr. . Said Tachibana.
As soon as the capsule is found, a helicopter will take it to a laboratory that has been set up at the Australian air force base in Woomera. There, an instrument extracts any gases in the capsule that may have been released from the asteroid rocks when they were shaken and broken upon reentry. DR. Yoshikawa said the scientists would also like to see if they can detect helium particles from solar winds of helium that hit the asteroid and became embedded in the rocks.
The gases would also reassure scientists that Hayabusa2 did indeed successfully collect samples from Ryugu. A minimum of 0. 1 gram or less than 1/280 ounce is required to account for success. The hope is that the spaceship brought back several grams.
In Japan, the Hayabusa2 team starts analyzing the Ryugu samples. In about a year some of the samples will be shared with other scientists for further study.
To collect these samples, Hayabusa2 arrived at the asteroid in June 2018. A number of investigations were carried out, each of which increased the technical complexity. It dropped probes on the surface of Ryugu, blasted a hole in the asteroid to look at what lies beneath, and descended twice to the surface to grab small pieces of the asteroid, an operation that differs due to the many Boulders turned out to be much more difficult than expected the surface.
Small worlds like Ryugu used to be of little interest to planetary scientists who focused on the study of planets, said Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the Institute of Space and Astronautics, part of JAXA. « Smaller bodies, who cares? » he said. “But if you are serious about the formation of planetary systems, small bodies do matter. ”
Studying water trapped in minerals from Ryugu could provide clues as to whether the water in Earth’s oceans came from asteroids and whether carbon-based molecules could have sowed the building blocks for life.
Some of the Ryugu samples are going to NASA, which is bringing back some stones and earth from another asteroid with its OSIRIS-REX mission. The OSIRIS-REX spacecraft has examined a smaller carbon-rich asteroid called Bennu. She will return to earth next spring and hand in her rock samples in September 2023.
Ryugu and Bennu turned out to be surprisingly similar in some ways. Both looked like spinning tops and had boulder-covered surfaces, but were different in other ways. For one thing, the rocks on Ryugu seem to hold much less water. The meaning of the similarities and differences only becomes clear after the scientists examine the rocks more closely.
« If the OSIRIS-REX example comes back, we will learn lessons from the Hayabusa2 mission, » said Harold C. . Connolly Jr. . , Professor of Geology at Rowan University in New Jersey and Mission Sample Scientist for OSIRIS-REX. “The similarities and differences are absolutely fascinating. ”
Dr. . Connolly hopes to travel to Japan next summer to participate in the analysis of the Ryugu samples.
Hayabusa2 is not Japan’s first planetary mission. In fact, its name suggests the existence of Hayabusa, a previous mission that brought back samples from another asteroid, Itokawa. However, this mission, which started in 2003 and returned in 2010, has faced major technical problems. One of them is JAXA’s Akatsuki spaceship, which is currently in orbit around Venus and which the Japanese agency was able to put back on a scientific mission after years of difficulties. A Japanese mission to Mars in 2003 also failed.
In contrast, the operation of Hayabusa2 ran almost flawlessly, although the general design of its predecessor was retained. « Actually there aren’t any major problems, » said Dr. . Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said. “Small, of course. ”
He said the team had thoroughly investigated the bugs at Hayabusa and made changes if necessary. It also carried out numerous rehearsals in order to anticipate possible eventualities.
The Japanese missions generally operate on smaller budgets than NASAs and therefore often have fewer instruments. The cost of Hayabusa2 is less than $ 300 million, while the price of OSIRIS-REX will be around $ 1 billion.
Submitting the Ryugu samples is not the end of the Hayabusa2 mission. After releasing the recapsule, the main spaceship shifted course to avoid a collision with Earth, which was missing 125 miles. It will now travel to another asteroid, a tiny asteroid named 1998 KY26 that is only 100 feet in diameter but spins rapidly and completes a revolution in under 11 minutes.
Hayabusa2 will use two Earth flybys to fling itself towards KY26 and eventually arrive in 2031. It will conduct some astronomical experiments during its extensive space voyage, and the spaceship is carrying one final projectile that it can use to test the surface of this space rock.
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