Hayabusa2 is a successor to Japan’s original Hayabusa craft, which returned with the first-ever samples from an asteroid back in 2010. Japan’s second asteroid sample-return mission was launched on 3 December 2014 from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan. It arrived in 2018 at Ryugu – an almost spherical carbon-rich asteroid that is 920 m in diameter and is thought to contain organic matter and hydrated minerals. The spacecraft deployed two rovers and a small lander onto the surface.
On Dec. 5, the probe delivered a capsule containing pristine samples of the carbon-rich asteroid Ryugu to Earth. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, has successfully retrieved 16 kg capsule that is hoped to contain flecks of an asteroid.
The capsule landed in Australia’s remote outback following a six-year mission by the $250m Hayabusa 2 mission to retrieve samples from the asteroid Ryugu. Scientists will now study the contents of the capsule to find out about the origin of the asteroid’s organic matter. And also about water and how these are related to life and ocean water on Earth.
The main Hayabusa2 spacecraft also made two visits of its own to Ryugu’s rubbly surface, collecting samples each time. One of those sampling runs snagged subsurface material freshly unearthed by a copper “cannonball” that the probe fired into the asteroid in April 2019.
Hayabusa2 collected the samples over a year and a half of poking and prodding Ryugu. A small asteroid shaped like a squashed sphere, peppered with giant boulders. Ryugu is a C-type, or carbon-rich, asteroid, which scientists think contains organic and hydrated minerals. It also preserved from as far back as 4.6 billion years ago. The samples could help to explain how Earth became covered with water. Scientists think it came on asteroids or similar planetary bodies from the outer regions of the Solar System.
JAXA said in a statement that they observed the sandy material at the entrance of the collection chamber. But it may have yet to look inside to see whether more asteroid dust is lurking there. It is only the second time that scientists have returned material from an asteroid.
Some 57 hours after the capsule was located, the team delivered it back to Japan. The swift shipment “means that the samples we got from Ryugu are very pure without contamination from the Earth’s atmosphere and we confirmed that there was no leakage”, says Tsuda.
10% of the material will be sent to NASA in December 2021 in exchange for samples from asteroid Bennu. This spacecraft OSIRIS-REx collected in October and should arrive on Earth by late 2023. Another 15% will be made available to international researchers, and about 40% will be stored for future scientists to investigate.
And there’s even more sample-return action coming in the relatively near future. In October 2019, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission collected a big sample from the carbon-rich asteroid Bennu. This material will touch down in Utah in September 2023, if all goes according to plan.
Hayabusa2 will perform other tasks during this extended mission as well, including observing exoplanets and the zodiacal light, the faint glow in our solar system caused by sunlight bouncing off interplanetary dust.
Hayabusa2 delivered the asteroid sample to Earth on Dec. 6, 2020. The spacecraft is now on an extended mission to the small asteroid 1998 KY26. Just a month later, the probe is officially on the move toward another asteroid, in the early stages of an ambitious and protracted extended mission.
The Hayabusa2 sample will become the seventh curated extraterrestrial collection humans have curated from beyond our planet. It serve as precursor for the important curation work that lies ahead in the new ARES lab when the Bennu samples arrive.