Japan collects asteroid samples in quest of planet origins


© Reuters. A fireball from Hayabusa2's capsule, which contains the first extensive samples of an asteroid, is seen re-entering the Earth's atmosphere


By Stanley White and Melanie Burton

TOKYO / MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Japan has brought a capsule of asteroid dust from Australia's remote outback after a six-year mission to learn more about the origins of the planets and water, the Asian nation's space agency said on Sunday.

The mission of the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 highlights Asia's growing role in space exploration. A Chinese robotic vehicle is collecting lunar samples for the first time since the 1970s last week.

A helicopter flew the capsule from the unmanned vehicle with the first large samples of asteroid dust from the landing site in the Australian desert to a domestic research facility of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

"The probe landed on the asteroid twice, and the second time an artificial crater was created and debris was collected," said the agency's president, Hiroshi Yamakawa, at a press conference.

"I hope this will shed some light on how the solar system was formed and how water was brought to earth."

The capsule may also contain some gas produced in Australia, Yamakawa added.

The spacecraft, which was launched from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center in 2014, traveled to the asteroid Ryugu for four years, where it collected a sample and headed home in November 2019.

Spectators gathered at a theater near the Japanese capital, Tokyo to watch the return clapped in NHK footage and waved to a woman in tears. They wore masks and kept their distance from each other as a precaution against the coronavirus.

Asteroids are believed to have formed early in the solar system, and scientists say the sample may contain organic matter that may have contributed to life on Earth.

"We are really trying to study this pristine rock that has not been exposed to the sun," astrophysicist Lisa Harvey-Smith told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Gases trapped in the rock samples could reveal more about conditions some 4.6 billion years ago, she added.

Finding the capsule again underlines the close technical cooperation between Japan and Australia.

"Our work in support of JAXA will not be finished until we see the sample … leave Australia safely and return to Japan," Megan Clark, head of the Australian space agency, told the press conference.

"And then the sample will begin to tell its stories and show us some wonderful signs of how water got to our earth and how we may even have formed, such as our organics, carbon-based animals, People and plants. "

Japan's ship, named for the peregrine falcon, a bird of prey, orbited the asteroid for a few months to map its surface before landing. Small explosives were used to blow up a crater and collect the debris.

After Hayabusa2 dropped the capsule, it changed course and returned to space.

The capsule lit up early Sunday when it re-entered the atmosphere and landed in the Woomera restricted area, about 460 km north of Adelaide, said the space agency.

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