The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 mission is coming back to Earth with precious cargo. During its mission to asteroid Ryugu, it collected the first-ever samples of sub-surface asteroid material.
The payload is expected to land on December 6 near the town of Woomera, South Australia. JAXA is collaborating with the Australian Space Agency for the safe retrieval of the capsule and both agencies are working on the legal side of things to make sure everything is in tiptop shape.
Scientifically, the mission will provide new insights into what we believe are the original fragments of the solar system. The asteroids formed at the same time as planets, but they have not experienced constant changes like the larger worlds. Analyzing what they are made will provide a window into what the solar system was like 4.6 billion years ago.
Hayabusa2, as the name suggests, is the second asteroid sample-return mission from JAXA and the second ever in general. The third one is NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, which is expected to collect its sample in October of this year.
The spacecraft took 3.5 years to travel to asteroid Ryugu, but its return journey will be quicker. Thanks to careful planning and the positions of the space rock and Earth, the travel time will take less than one year. At the time of writing, the spacecraft is just 90 million kilometers (56 million miles) away.
The collection of the samples was quite a feat. The spacecraft had a brief touchdown on the surface of Ryugu and shot a small projectile that lifted the soil, which was sucked up in its sampling tube. For the subsurface sample, the team had to shoot a 2.5-kilogram (5.5-pound) bullet into the rock to expose sub-surface debris and wait for the literal dust to settle so that the spacecraft could fly down to collect material in safety.
The craft also successfully delivered the first-ever rovers to land on an asteroid, which sent back the first-ever images taken on the surface of an asteroid. And it might be possible that its mission will extend to another near-Earth object in the future.