Japanese scientists are said to be ecstatic after opening the space capsule that landed in the South Australian outback in early December.
The capsule contains samples of asteroid dust from the Hayabusa-2 space probe. The capsule was ejected by the probe as it passed over Australia and descended by parachute onto RAAF-controlled Woomera Range Complex about 450km from Adelaide.
There it was recovered by a team of Australian and Japanese scientists and sent on a further journey to the Japanese space agency, Jaxa.
Capsule containing sample opened this week
A Jaxa team opened the capsule this week and are elated at the amount of dust collected by Hayabusa-2 when it landed on Ryugu, a 900m-wide asteroid located around 350-million km from Earth.
“When we actually opened it, I was speechless. It was more than we expected and there was so much that I was truly impressed,” said the Jaxa scientist Hirotaka Sawada. “It wasn’t fine particles like powder, but there were plenty of samples that measured several millimetres across.”
A report by the AFP news agency quotes another scientist, Professor Seiichiro Watanabe of Nagoya University, as saying: “There are a lot [of samples] and it seems they contain plenty of organic matter.
“So I hope we can find out many things about how organic substances have developed on the parent body of Ryugu.”
Analysed by teams of international scientists
The samples will be analysed by Jaxa, US space agency Nasa and various other international research bodies.
Scientists believe the material from the asteroid will provide more detail on the formation of the universe and may also provide clues as to the origins of life on Earth.
Hayabusa-2 returned with samples of both the surface and subsurface of the asteroid. The surface samples were collected in February 2019.
Six-year mission to distant asteroid Ryugu
The sub-surface samples were collected in July of the same year, but only after the spacecraft had first fired a copper ‘bullet’ into the surface in order to expose the material below.
The spacecraft left the surface of Ryugu in November 2019 to begin its long journey back toward Earth as part of a six-year mission.
However, its task is not yet over. After delivering the capsule over Australia it has returned to space to begin an extended mission targeting two new asteroids.