A capsule containing asteroid samples arrives in Japan for research

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TOKYO – Officials at the Japanese space agency were delighted on Tuesday with the return of a small capsule containing asteroid soil samples obtained by their Hayabusa2 spacecraft and eagerly awaited to look inside once preparations were completed .

Hayabusa2 dropped the capsule from space and it landed in the Australian Outback as planned this weekend. He arrived in Japan on Tuesday and will be studied to better understand the origins of the solar system and life on Earth.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said the capsule, tightly sealed and carefully stored in a container box, arrived at its research facility in Sagamihara, near Tokyo, for analysis.

“It really is like a dream,” said Yuichi Tsuda, Hayabusa2 project manager. “After 5.2 billion kilometers (3.2 billion miles) of space travel that took six years, (the capsule) is back and now it’s here with us.

Mission officials will have to wait until next week to look inside.

“I can’t wait to find out if the samples are really inside and how many there are,” mission leader Makoto Yoshikawa said.

At the end of its year-long journey from asteroid Ryugu, more than 300 million kilometers (190 million miles) from Earth, Hayabusa2 released the 220,000 kilometer (136,700 mile) capsule on Saturday into the space, successfully sending it to land in a targeted area in a sparsely populated desert in Australia.

The very high precision work at the end of Hayabusa2’s six-year mission delighted many Japanese.

Launched in December 2014, the Hayabusa2 unmanned spacecraft twice landed on the asteroid last year. Despite an unexpected rocky surface that forced the mission team to revise landing plans, the spacecraft managed to collect data and soil samples from two locations – above ground and underground.

Scientists say samples taken from below the asteroid’s surface will likely contain data from 4.6 billion years ago unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in studying organic materials in samples to find out how they were distributed in the solar system and if they are related to life on Earth.

Usui said that depending on the quantity of samples, research priorities will be placed on an analysis of minerals, the variety of organic materials and their structures, and a timeline of the samples.

(asterisk) Everyone is interested in organics, including myself, ”Usui said, adding that he hopes to find out how it evolved while being transported to Earth and Mars. (asterisk) We want to find the proof, not the theory, of the hypotheses. “

Tsuda said he was hoping for surprises. “I can’t wait to find unexpected organics we’ve never thought of, ones with complex molecular geometries or minerals containing water.”

The samples will be processed in a clean room at the Sagamihara plant to avoid any external impact. After initial studies in Japan for about a year, some of the samples will be shared with NASA and other international scientists for further study starting in 2022.

A first inspection at a rapid check facility in Australia detected unidentified gases in the capsule, a sign that they are related to solar wind or to samples from Ryugu. JAXA will analyze the gases in more detail, which may provide information on organics and water.

Outside the JAXA facility in Sagamihara, senior members of the Hayabusa2 team and local fans lined up at the gate on Tuesday to welcome the arrival of the capsule, transported from the airport on a truck, some holding up a sign saying “Welcome back!”

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

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