In a streak of light across the night sky, samples collected from a distant asteroid arrived on Earth on Sunday after being dropped off by Japanese space probe Hayabusa2.
Scientists hope the precious samples, which are expected to amount to no more than 0.1 grams of material, could help shed light on the origin of life and the formation of the universe.
The capsule carrying samples entered the atmosphere just before 2:30 a.m. Japan time, creating a shooting-star-like fireball as it entered Earth’s atmosphere.
“Six years and it has finally come back to Earth,” an official narrating a live broadcast of the arrival said, as images showed personnel from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency cheering and pumping their fists in excitement.
A few hours later, JAXA confirmed the samples had been recovered, with help from beacons emitted by the capsule as it plummeted to Earth after separating from Hayabusa2 on Saturday, while the fridge-sized probe was some 220,000 km (137,000 miles) away.
“We found the capsule! Together with the parachute! Wow!,” the mission’s Twitter account tweeted.
People who had gathered at a public viewing site near JAXA’s office in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture — despite the event taking place a few hours after midnight — also erupted with cheers.
“I’m extremely happy because the capsule has returned home safely, Hayabusa2 did a great job,” an elementary school boy said.
The capsule was recovered in the southern Australian desert, and will now be processed before being sent to Japan.
The samples were collected by Hayabusa2, which launched in 2014, from the asteroid Ryugu, some 300 million km from Earth.
The probe collected both surface dust and pristine material from below the surface that was stirred up by firing an “impactor” into the asteroid.
The material collected from the asteroid is believed to be unchanged since the time the universe was formed.
Larger celestial bodies like Earth went through radical changes including heating and solidifying, changing the composition of the materials on their surface and below.
But “when it comes to smaller planets or smaller asteroids, these substances were not melted, and therefore it is believed that substances from 4.6 billion years ago are still there,” Hayabusa2 mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa told reporters before the capsule arrived.
Scientists are especially keen to discover whether the samples contain organic matter, which could have helped seed life on Earth.
“We still don’t know the origin of life on Earth and through this Hayabusa2 mission, if we are able to study and understand these organic materials from Ryugu, it could be that these organic materials were the source of life on Earth,” Yoshikawa said.
“We’ve never had materials like this before … water and organic matters will be subject to research, so this is a very valuable opportunity,” said Motoo Ito, senior researcher at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.
Half the Hayabusa2’s samples will be shared between JAXA, U.S. space agency NASA and other international organizations, and the rest kept for future study as advances are made in analytic technology.
The work isn’t over for Hayabusa2, which will now begin an extended mission targeting two new asteroids.
It will complete a series of orbits around the sun for around six years before approaching the first of its target asteroids — named 2001 CC21 — in July 2026.
The probe won’t get that close, but scientists hope it will be able to photograph it and that the fly-by will help develop knowledge about how to protect Earth against asteroid impact.
Hayabusa2 will then head toward its main target, 1998 KY26, a ball-shaped asteroid with a diameter of just 30 meters. When the probe arrives at the asteroid in July 2031, it will be approximately 300 million km from Earth.
It will observe and photograph the asteroid, no easy task given that it is spinning rapidly, rotating on its axis about every 10 minutes.
But Hayabusa2 is unlikely to land and collect samples, as it probably won’t have enough fuel to return them to Earth.
The Prime Minister’s Office tweeted it is “very happy” the capsule was retrieved after it safely landed in Australia early Sunday. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga retweeted the post to his own Twitter account.
The office singled out Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda and others involved in the project to collect and return the samples. After watching the capsule’s return in the control room at JAXA’s office in Sagamihara, Tsuda expressed joy and a sense of relief.
Referring to the re-entry of the capsule into the Earth’s atmosphere, Tsuda said, “It was a beautiful descent into the atmosphere. We are moved, too.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.