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Japan awaits return of spacecraft with asteroid soil samples

Hayabusa2 is descending to land in a remote, sparsely populated area of South Australia on Sunday.

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The Hayabusa2 spacecraft above the asteroid Ryugu (ISAS/JAXA via AP, File)

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft above the asteroid Ryugu (ISAS/JAXA via AP, File)

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft above the asteroid Ryugu (ISAS/JAXA via AP, File)

Japan’s space agency says the Hayabusa2 spacecraft has separated a capsule and sent it towards 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 (JAXA) said the capsule successfully detached on Saturday from 136,700 miles away in a challenging operation that required precision control.

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(PA Graphics)

(PA Graphics)

Press Association Images

(PA Graphics)

The capsule is now descending to land in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, South Australia, on Sunday.

Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 180 million miles away, a year ago. After the capsule release, it is now moving away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending to the surface.

Yuichi Tsuda, project manager at JAXA, stood up and raised his fists as everyone applauded the moment command centre officials confirmed the separation of the capsule.

Hayabusa2’s return with the world’s first asteroid subsurface samples comes weeks after Nasa’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft made a successful touch-and-go grab of surface samples from asteroid Bennu, and China this week announced its lunar lander had collected underground samples and sealed them within the spacecraft for return to Earth, as nations compete in their space missions.

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JAXA members celebrate at the command centre (JAXA/AP)

JAXA members celebrate at the command centre (JAXA/AP)

AP/PA Images

JAXA members celebrate at the command centre (JAXA/AP)

Many Hayabusa2 fans gathered to observe the moment of the capsule separation at public viewing events across the country, including one at the Tokyo Dome stadium.

In the early hours of Sunday, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, will briefly turn into a fireball as it re-enters the atmosphere 75 miles above Earth. At about six miles above ground, a parachute will open to slow its fall and beacon signals will be transmitted to indicate its location.

JAXA staff have set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area to receive the signals, while also preparing a marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule, 15in in diameter.

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Crew members set up an antenna near Woomera (JAXA/AP)

Crew members set up an antenna near Woomera (JAXA/AP)

AP/PA Images

Crew members set up an antenna near Woomera (JAXA/AP)

Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who is in Woomera for the arrival of the capsule, said he expected the Ryugu samples to be similar to the meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison in Victoria state more than 50 years ago.

“The Murchison meteorite opened a window on the origin of organics on Earth because these rocks were found to contain simple amino acids as well as abundant water,” Mr Ireland said.

“We will examine whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system was forming, and whether these still remain intact on the asteroid.”

Scientists believe the samples, especially ones from under the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in analysing organic materials in the samples.

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The asteroid Ryugu (JAXA/AP)

The asteroid Ryugu (JAXA/AP)

AP/PA Images

The asteroid Ryugu (JAXA/AP)

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 is not the end of the mission it started in 2014. After dropping the capsule, it will return to space and head to another distant small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years one way, for a 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 an extremely rocky surface, and collected data and samples during the 18 months it spent near the asteroid after arriving 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 it created by blasting Ryugu’s surface.

Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and may help explain how Earth evolved.

Ryugu in Japanese means Dragon Palace, the name of a sea-bottom castle in a Japanese folk tale.

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