The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 mission is heading towards Earth to drop the sample collection capsule before moving on to the next part of its expanded mission: visiting more asteroids.
Although this event takes place between 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. EST on Sunday, it will happen between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. The capsule is expected to land about 15 minutes after entering Earth’s atmosphere.
A fireball will spread across the early morning sky in the Australian outback during re-entry.
Hayabusa2 was launched on December 3, 2014, and reached the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu in June 2018. The spacecraft collected one sample from the asteroid’s surface on February 22, 2019, and then fired a copper “bullet” into the asteroid to create 33 foot-wide impact holes. A sample of this crater was collected on July 11, 2019.
Then, Hayabusa2 left the asteroid in November 2019 and returned to Earth.
Altogether, the expedition’s science team believes that one gram of material has been collected, but they can’t be sure of that until they open it.
“One gram may seem small, but to us, one gram is huge,” said Masaaki Fujimoto, Deputy Director General of the Solar System Science Department in JAXA, during an online media briefing hosted by the Australian Science Media Center. “It suffices to address our scientific questions.”
The agency’s first Hayabusa mission brought samples from the asteroid Itokawa back to Earth in June 2010, but scientists said that due to the spacecraft’s sampling failure, they were only able to retrieve a microgram of dust from the asteroid.
“Ryujo is connected to the process that made our planet habitable,” Fujimoto said. “The earth was born dry; it did not start with water. We think that objects as far away as Ryugu came to the inner part of the solar system, hit the earth, delivered water and made it habitable. This is the main question that we are seeking and we need samples to solve that.”
Because Hayabusa2 is not returning to Earth, it ejects a 35-pound sample return capsule as it swings by our planet this weekend at a distance of 136,701 miles. After that, the spacecraft will change its trajectory and move beyond Earth and move with its extended mission.
The Australian government has granted JAXA permission to disembark its capsule in the Woomera restricted area in South Australia. The Australian Department of Defense is using this remote area for testing.
This location was previously used by the Japan Space Agency for the Hayabusa landing in 2010. JAXA has appealed to its partnership with Australia, the large, flat and open nature of the Earth and the fact that the team can quickly transport the sample from Australia to Japan.
At around 4 a.m. Australian time, the team will search for a fireball for its streak across the Australian sky.
“To the non-team members, the fireball looks like the grand finale. But for us, it’s the bell that rings and tells us, ‘This is not training,'” Fujimoto said.
The large subsidence zone extends 124 miles north to south and 62 miles east to west. The agency set aside this large area to compensate for any uncertainties caused by the local wind speed when the capsule deploys its parachute.
Next, the team will try to locate the capsule landing site as quickly as possible.
Once the capsule is located, a helicopter will take the sample team’s scientists to the landing site so they can collect it. The capsule will be placed in a safety box, and they will return it to headquarters, which is a temporary facility they built.
This clean room will allow the team to inspect the capsule and allow gas to be emptied. It is possible that the capsule collected gases from the asteroid – which may have been emitted from the sample collected by the spacecraft. Any detection of gas in the gas sample container is a good sign that they have successfully collected a sample of asteroid material.
Fujimoto said an official announcement of the amount of material collected from the asteroid will be made once samples are returned to Japan and opened.
Hayabusa2 will fly three asteroids between 2026 and 2031, eventually reaching the small asteroid orbiting at a speed of 1998 KY26 in July 2031 millions of miles away from Earth. It will be the first flight of this type of asteroid.
What’s in an asteroid sample?
Asteroids are like food remnants from our solar system, as they preserve information about the origins of planets as well as the vital elements that allow life to exist on Earth.
Ryugu is shaped like a diamond and is more than half a mile in diameter.
“I expect the Hayabusa2 samples of the asteroid Ryugu to be very similar to the meteorite that landed in Australia near Murchison, Victoria, over 50 years ago,” said Trevor Ireland, a professor in the Australian National University’s School of Earth Sciences Research. Member of the Hayabusa2 scientific team at Woomera, in a statement.
“The Murchison meteorite opened a window to the origin of organic matter on Earth because these rocks were found to contain simple amino acids in addition to abundant water. We will examine whether Ryuju was a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system was forming and whether it was not Still intact on the asteroid. “
Ryugu is also a near-Earth asteroid that has an orbit that takes it between Earth and Mars. It will approach Earth in December 2076. Understanding these potentially dangerous asteroids could enable space agencies to plan how to distract them.
The NASA OSIRIS-REx mission recently collected a sample from another near-Earth asteroid, Bennu, that is similar in composition to Ryugu. In fact, based on early data from both missions, scientists working on both missions believe that it is possible that these two asteroids belonged to the same larger object before it was disintegrated by the collision.
The Bennu specimen will be returned to Earth by 2023.
Patrick Michel, director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, investigates both missions.
Michel told CNN in October: “It is really important to realize that no two asteroids are the same.” “Even if Bennu and Ryuju share some interesting similarities and belong to the same (primitive) class, they also have some interesting differences. These samples will occupy generations of researchers where a large amount will be preserved for future generations who will benefit from the increased technology and precision of the tools used. To analyze it. “