TOKYO, Japan — Japan’s space agency said its helicopter search team has spotted a capsule, which is carrying asteroid samples that could explain the origin of life, that landed on a remote area in southern Australia as planned Sunday.
Hayabusa2 had successfully released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it toward Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.
Early Sunday the capsule briefly turned into a fireball as it reentered the atmosphere 120 kilometers (75 miles) above Earth. At about 10 kilometers (6 miles) aboveground, a parachute was to open to slow its fall and beacon signals were to be transmitted to indicate its location.
“It was great ... It was a beautiful fireball, and I was so impressed," said JAXA's Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda as he celebrated the successful capsule return and safe landing from a command center in Sagamihara, near Tokyo. “I've waited for this day for six years."
Beacon signals have been detected, suggesting a parachute has also successfully opened and the capsule landed safely in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia, said JAXA official Akitaka Kishi.
About two hours after the capsule's reentry, JAXA said its helicopter search team found the capsule in the planned landing area. A retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule, about 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter, will start after the sunrise, Kishi said.
The fireball could be seen even from the International Space Station. A Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who is now on a six-month mission there, tweeted: “Just spotted #hayabusa2 from #ISS! Unfortunately not bright enough for handheld camera, but enjoyed watching capsule!”
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) away, a year ago. After it released the capsule, it moved away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending toward the planet as it set off on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.
The capsule descended from 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) away in space after it was separated from Hayabusa2 in a challenging operation that required precision control.
JAXA staff were standing by and now they are springing into action to locate the capsule, which some people call “a treasure box.” JAXA officials said they hoped to retrieve the capsule by Sunday evening before a preliminary safety inspection at a Australian lab and bring it home early next week.
Dozens of JAXA staff have been working in Woomera to prepare for the sample-return. They have set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area inside the Australian Air Force test field to receive the signals. They also will use a marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule.
Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who is in Woomera for the arrival of the capsule, said he expected the Ryugu samples to be similar to the meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison in Victoria state more than 50 years ago.
“The Murchison meteorite opened a window on the origin of organics on Earth because these rocks were found to contain simple amino acids as well as abundant water,” Ireland said. “We will examine whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system was forming, and whether these still remain intact on the asteroid.”
Scientists say they believe the samples, especially ones taken from under the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in the samples.
JAXA hopes to find clues to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth. Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said 0.1 gram of the dust would be enough to carry out all planned researches.
For Hayabusa2, it’s not the end of the mission it started in 2014. It is now heading to a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years one way, for possible research including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.
So far, its mission has been fully successful. It touched down twice on Ryugu despite the asteroid’s extremely rocky surface, and successfully collected data and samples during the 1½ years it spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.
In its first touchdown in February 2019, it collected surface dust samples. In a more challenging mission in July that year, it collected underground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater that it created earlier by blasting the asteroid’s surface.
Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and therefore may help explain how Earth evolved.
Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace,” the name of a sea-bottom castle in a Japanese folk tale.