South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

Japan capsule with asteroid samples lands in Australia

- By Mari Yamaguchi

TOKYO — 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 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 75miles above Earth. At about 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 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 15 inches in diameter, will start after sunrise, Kishi said.

Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 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 136,700 miles away in space after itwas 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 an Australian lab and bring it home this week.

Dozens of JAXA staff have been working in Woomera toprepare 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 amarine radar, drones and helicopter­s to assist in the search and retrieval of the 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 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.

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 time 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.

Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace,” the name of a castle in a Japanese folk tale.

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