Japan's Hayabusa2 returns after six years journey to-fro asteroid Ryugu: All you need to know

Hayabusa-2 now travels on to its next journey to visit asteroid 1998 KY26 which will take it 11 years to reach.


A container filled with intact and untouched samples from an asteroid, re-entered Earth's atmosphere and landed in Woomera, Australia on Sunday. A team has found and recovered the sample return capsule and it is currently being analysed. Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft spent six years in space, travelling about 300 million kilometres from Earth to asteroid Ryugu. It arrived at Ryugu in June 2018, descended on to its surface by February 2019 and had collected the samples and left for home in November 2019.

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

 Japans Hayabusa2 returns after six years journey to-fro asteroid Ryugu: All you need to know

An illustration of Hayabusa-2 heading for Ryugu. Image credit: German Aerospace Center

The samples were of a 4.6 billion-year-old asteroid Ryugu. For the first time, the Hayabusa-2 mission has scored samples from the surface as well as the subsurface of an asteroid. Scientists hope to use the samples to understand the origins of life, the formation of organic material in ancient time and find out how the planets were created by studying primitive small bodies like Ryugu.

While the mission scientists had planned around 100 milligrams to be stored and return, there is no way of knowing exactly how much of the sample is in the container till the container was opened. After a year, the samples are to be divided between JAXA, NASA and other researchers for further studies. About 40 percent of the samples will be stored for future technological advancement to resolve unanswered questions.

The road to recovery

After travelling for a year, the spacecraft landed in the Australian Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) on Sunday, 6 December. As per a report by The Verge, Hayabusa-2 deployed the capsule containing the samples late Friday night and it was set on a course for Earth. It plunged through the atmosphere and then deployed a parachute which helped it slow down from about 12 km per second so that it could gently land on the Australian Outbacks.

The fireball entry was captured in its fiery glory.

Since the capsule made a nighttime reentry and landing, the team from the Australian space agency went on a recovery hunt in a 100 sq km area. However, a beacon on the capsule made the search a whole lot easier. The capsule is currently being analysed and will be sent to Japan and opened by JAXA researchers.

"We were able to land the treasure box" onto the sparsely populated Australian desert of Woomera as planned, said Yuichi Tsuda, Hayabusa-2 project manager at JAXA. He told The Associated Press that the capsule was in perfect shape.

"I really look forward to opening it and looking inside," Tsuda added.

According to a report by The New York Times, the team want to conduct initial analysis and then send it on its way to Japan, where JAXA scientists will open it, within 100 hours after it landed. They fear the earth's air will slowly lead into the sealed capsule and could corrupt the samples.

What happens next?

Firstpost had earlier reported that JAXA received the requisite permissions from the Commonwealth Return Safety Officer (CRSO) to transition Hayabusa-2 onto a re-entry trajectory on 25 November. The CMRO gave the green signal after securing that there were no issues with the "navigation, guidance, plan, spacecraft or ground systems".

The asteroid Ryugu that spacecraft Hayabusa2 has created a crater in. Image credit: JAXA

The asteroid Ryugu that spacecraft Hayabusa2 has created a crater in. Image credit: JAXA

While the mission was officially complete in July 2019, it was decided that Hayabusa-2 will be sent on an extended mission to either asteroid 2001 AV43 or 1998 KY26. JAXA has now revealed that it has already sent the spacecraft on its next journey to visit asteroid 1998 KY26. It will take Hayabusa-2 11 years to reach its new target, where it will analyze the rock and try to find ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.

Both of those asteroids were chosen because they are "small" and "fast-spinning" objects which belonged to a type of asteroids that have not been studied before.

The sample capsule from the Hayabusa2 lays on the Australian Outback before it was retrieved. Image credit: twitter/JAXA

The sample capsule from the Hayabusa2 lays on the Australian Outback before it was retrieved. Image credit: twitter/JAXA

Not its first rodeo

This mission is not the first time that Japan and its Hayabusa spacecraft has returned samples from an asteroid, to Earth. The predecessor of Hayabusa-2 visited the asteroid Itokawa, from which it managed to bring only a millionth of a gram of dust. While it was meant to bring back a lot more, "multiple mishaps in deep space" had affected the results.

Fun fact: The Australian Woomera Prohibited Area is an isolated stretch of land spanning 1,22,000 square km and was used to land Hayabusa as well in 2010.

The sample capsule after it was recovered. Image credit: twitter/JAXA

The sample capsule after it was recovered. Image credit: twitter/JAXA

The week has been an exciting one for object retrieval from space, with China announced that its Chang'e 5 lunar lander was able to scoop up lunar dirt and rock, already on its way back to Earth.

NASA was also able to retrieve a sample of rock from asteroid Bennu, as part of its OSIRIS-REx mission. The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth with samples in tow by 24 September 2023.

Since NASA and JAXA collaborate with each other, both space agencies will be sharing part of its findings with each other.


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