Japan's Hayabusa2 to drop fragments of asteroid Ryugu on Earth

Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft will drop a capsule containing fragments of near-Earth asteroid Ryugu in the Australian outback this weekend

  • Hayabusa2 launched to collect samples of the near Earth asteroid Ryugu in 2014 
  • It left the asteroid a year ago to return back to Earth and drop the samples
  • A capsule with the samples will separate from the spaceship on Saturday
  • They will then travel 136,700 miles to the Earth and drop them in Australia

The Japanese spaceship Hayabusa2 will drop a capsule filled with fragments of the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu into the Australian outback this coming weekend. 

Japanese space agency officials said the samples of the Ryugu asteroid – 180 million miles away – were on track to return to Earth on Sunday after separating from the Hayabusa2 spaceship inside a capsule 136,700 miles from Earth tomorrow.

Researchers hope that the asteroid could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth as the samples cam from under the asteroid surface.

The spacecraft left the asteroid Ryugu a year ago and the capsule will be released in space before travelling to Earth and landing  in Woomera, Australia on Sunday. 

This computer graphics image released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows the Hayabusa2 spacecraft above the asteroid Ryugu

Japanese space agency officials said the samples of the Ryugu asteroid – 180 million miles away – were on track to return to Earth on Sunday after separating from the Hayabusa2 spaceship inside a capsule 136,700 miles from Earth tomorrow 

JAXA crew members set up antenna in the preparation for the operation for the capsule collection in Woomera, South Australia

Hayabusa2 is flying smoothly according to plan, Yuichi Tsuda, project manager at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), said at a briefing.

The critical moment for the mission will come on Saturday when the capsule will separate from the spacecraft and continue its journey down to Earth. 

‘We trained ourselves and now we are fully prepared. So I’m just praying that equipment that hasn’t been used yet will work well and that there will be good weather in Australia,’ he said. ‘We are so excited.’

In the early hours of Sunday, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, will briefly turn into a fireball as it reenters the atmosphere 75 miles above the planet. 

At about six miles above ground, a parachute will open to slow its fall. At this point beacon signals will be transmitted to indicate its location.

JAXA staff have set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area to receive the signals, while also preparing marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval of the 15 inch pan-shaped capsule. 

Scientists say they believe the samples, especially ones taken from under the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation.

They are particularly interested in analysing organic materials in the samples., which JAXA says should provide clues to how materials are distributed in the solar system.

Project manager Yuichi Tsuda speaks during a press conference in Sagamihara, near Tokyo ahead of the return of samples to Earth

Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft landed on the asteroid to collect samples in 2018 and will return them to the surface of the Earth in December

The Japanese space agency said Friday they are all set for the spacecrafts final approach to Earth this weekend to deliver a capsule containing valuable samples of a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system

For Hayabusa2, it actually isn’t the end of the mission it started in 2014. After dropping the capsule, it will return to space and head to another distant small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years one way.

WHAT DO THE  NAMES OF THE HYABUSA MISSION MEAN? 

Names of the mission come from the Japanese fairy tale Urashima Tarō.

Ryugu was the name of a dragon king’s palace at the bottom of the ocean. 

The landing site has been given the moniker Tamatebako.

This is a sacred treasure box of huge worth inside the palace.  

The tale states that when it is opened, smoke pours out.

The names were chosen due to the cloud of dust kicked up when Hyabusa 2 collided with the asteroid’s surface. 

Scientists also say the rocks due to be returned to Earth represent the treasure mentioned in the story. 

So far, its mission has been fully successful. It touched down twice on Ryugu, despite its 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.

JAXA isn’t the only agency looking to return samples to the Earth – NASA took samples of asteroid Bennu earlier this year using the OSIRIS-Rex spaceship.  

NASA’s van-sized spacecraft with an Egyptian-inspired name has been orbiting Bennu, which is hurtling through space at 63,000 miles per hour, for two years. 

It touched down on the surface of the asteroid – which is a sister of Ryugu – on October 22 and will return samples to the Earth by 2023.

The other ongoing sample return mission involves the Chinese space agency sending a spacecraft to the surface of the Moon and will return about 4.4lb of samples to the Earth by the end of this year.

STUDYING THE ASTEROID RYUGU WILL HELP SCIENTISTS UNDERSTAND THE HISTORY OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM

Jaxa’s Hayabusa Two probe is on a mission to study the ancient asteroid Ryugu in a bid to help scientists better understand the origins of the solar system.

The probe launched in December 2014 and arrived at the dice-shaped space rock on June 27, 2018.

Hayabusa Two is studying soil and rock samples using several pieces of equipment.

Hayabusa Two (artist’s impression) carries a number of experiments including four surface rovers and an explosive device designed to gouge out ‘fresh’ rock samples

The probe is loaded with four surface landers, an array of cameras and even an explosive device that will dig out subsurface rock samples.

Ryugu, a Type C asteroid, contains traces of water and organic material and it is hoped that analysing this material will reveal what the early conditions were like at the time the solar system formed around 4,6 billion years ago.

Hayabusa Two is expected to return to Earth in late 2020 carrying samples for further analysis.

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