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Space Capsule With Asteroid Sample Lands Back On Earth After Six Years

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  • This is the first subsurface asteroid sample on Earth.
  • The team estimates that they may have collected one gram of asteroid material, which is already “huge”, enough to address their science questions.
  • The first Hayabusa was only able to retrieve micrograms of dust because of failure of the spacecraft’s sampling device.

On December 5, a container from the Hayabusa2, a Japanese asteroid-sampling spacecraft, came back to Earth with a piece of the asteroid Ryugu. The container was parachuted down near Woomera in South Australia, where a recovery team was waiting.

This is the first subsurface asteroid sample on Earth, which has now been moved, along with the capsule, inside the the team’s temporary “headquarters” in Woomera.

Dr Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for the mission, said that they have collected the “treasure box” and that there was no damage to the container. The team believes that they have collected one gram of asteroid material, although they couldn’t be sure until they open the container.

Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the department of solar system sciences at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), said that “One gram may sound small, but for us, one gram is huge. It is enough to address our science questions.”

JAXA’s first Hayabusa mission returned to Earth in June 2010 with samples from the asteroid Itokawa, but it was only able to retrieve micrograms of dust because of failure of the spacecraft’s sampling device.

The Hayabusa2, which was launched in 2014, is not designed to return to Earth but instead will move on to other asteroids. This is why only the capsule returned to the planet, which was ejected from the spacecraft.

The spacecraft collected one sample from the surface of the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu on February 22, 2019 – a copper “bullet” was fired into Ryugu to create an impact crater 33-foot wide.

Another sample was collected from this crater on July 11, 2019.

Sara Russell, leader of the planetary materials group at London’s Natural History Museum, said: “Having samples from an asteroid like Ryugu will be really exciting for our field. We think Ryugu is made up of super-ancient rocks that will tell us how the Solar System formed.”

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