The news: A capsule containing the first rock samples from the asteroid Ryugu returned to Earth Sunday, December 6 in “perfect” condition, according to the researchers.
The samples were collected after a six-year mission by the Japanese Hayabusa-2 spacecraft to and from Ryugu, 180 million kilometers away. Hayabusa-2 flew close to Earth and dropped the capsule which then passed through the atmosphere at high speed before deploying a parachute. The 16kg capsule, which contains about 0.1 grams of rock and dust, landed safely in Woomera, South Australia at 4:37 a.m. local time and was located and collected shortly thereafter by the team. recovery led by the Japanese space agency JAXA.
The importance: This is only the second time in history that samples from an asteroid have arrived on Earth – the first was the original Hayabusa mission, but which only managed to bring back a few micrograms of asteroid dust. The hope is that the samples will help researchers better understand how the solar system formed, including habitable worlds like Earth.
Asteroids are like time capsules of ancient space history because their physical and chemical composition is much better preserved than that of a planet, which changes more over time. Ryugu should also help us understand what kinds of elements and compounds could have been delivered to the early Earth via meteor impacts. After dropping off its precious cargo, Hayabusa-2 has fired its engines again and is now heading to asteroid 2001 CC21 for a flyby in July 2026, followed by a rendezvous with asteroid 1998 KY26 in July 2031.
And after: The capsule is about to be transported to Japan, where we’ll find out exactly how much asteroid material has been collected, and researchers can begin analyzing it to see what clues to our early history it contains.