Updated: Jan 31
Last weekend, Japan's space agency (JAXA) conducted a scavenger hunt of the South Australian outback to retrieve a capsule containing rock from the Ryugu asteroid in space.
Camera capture of the capsule's fireball as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere. // EPA
In 2014, JAXA launched Hayabusa-2, a robotic space probe, to explore a dark, carbon-rich rock more than half a mile in width - an asteroid named Ryugu. After investigating it for over a year, Hayabusa-2 returned to Earth and released a capsule containing quantities of Ryugu's rock into our atmosphere. Soon after, Hayabusa-2 began a journey towards a new target. Meanwhile, the capsule parachuted down to a barren region near Woomera, South Australia at a speed of nearly 11km/s.
The area, used for testing by the Royal Australian Air Force, provided an ideal wide-open space for retrieval of an interplanetary probe. However, the challenge of locating the 16-inch-wide amid hundreds of square miles in a region over 280 miles north of the nearest large city, Adelaide, remained. Shogo Tachibana was the principal investigator of a team containing more than 70 people from Japan involved in the retrieval of the capsule. After merely two and a half hours, the capsule was located. Now, the team aims to perform an initial analysis and transport it back to Japan within 100 hours.
"We flew over the area [where it landed] many times and I thought maybe that was where it was. Then the Sun rose and we could visually confirm the existence of the capsule. We thought: 'Wow, we found it!'" - Satoru Nakazawa, Hayabusa-2's sub-manager at JAXA
The capsule packed in a protective box for travel to a "quick-look" facility. // JAXA and EPA
Asteroids like Ryugu are composed of the same elements involved in the formation of our Solar System, essentially leftover building materials. By studying them, scientists can make conclusions about how water and life's other essentials were delivered to Earth in its earlier stages. Specifically, they'll receive hints about whether Earth's oceans came from asteroids, and if carbon-based molecules seeded the building blocks for life.
"Having samples from an asteroid like Ryugu will be really exciting for our field. We think Ryugu is made up of super-ancient rocks that will tell us how the Solar System formed," - Sara Russell, leader of planetary materials group at London's Natural History Museum
The success of JAXA's mission and the new scientific knowledge gained through it will raise Japan's status in the realm of deep space exploration. In the next years, Japan is planning a similar mission called MMX, which will aim to bring back samples from Mars' largest moon Phobos. Additionally, it'll be contributing to NASA’s Artemis program to send astronauts to Earth’s moon as well as collaborating with Europeans on a mission that's heading to Mercury.