Asteroid samples from Hayabusa-2 leave Japanese scientists speechless

Scientists in Japan said on Dec. 15 that they were left “speechless” when they saw how much asteroid dust was inside a capsule delivered by the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft on an unprecedented mission.

The Japanese survey collected surface dust and untouched material last year from the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers (200 million miles) away, during two daring phases of its six-year mission.

This month it took off a capsule containing the samples that created a fireball as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere, and landed in the Australian desert before being transported to Japan.

Scientists from the Japanese space agency JAXA on Tuesday removed the screws to the inner container of the capsule, having already found a small amount of asteroid dust in the outer shell, AFP a report said.

“When we actually opened it, I was speechless. It was more than we expected and it was so much that I was really impressed,” said JAXA scientist Hirotaka Sawada. “There weren’t fine particles like powder, but there were a lot of samples that measured several millimeters across.”

The capsule shot down by Japan's Hayabusa-2 spacecraft in a container arrives at the Japanese Aerospace Research Agency's research facility in Sagamihara, near Tokyo on Tuesday, December 8th.  (Photo credit: Yu Nakajima / Kyodo News via AP)

The capsule shot down by Japan’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft in a container arrives at the Japanese Aerospace Research Agency’s research facility in Sagamihara, near Tokyo on Tuesday, December 8th. (Photo credit: Yu Nakajima / Kyodo News via AP)

Scientists hope the material will shed light on the formation of the universe and may offer clues as to how life began on Earth. They have not yet revealed whether the material inside is equal, or perhaps even more, than the 0.1 grams they said they hope to discover.

Seiichiro Watanabe, a Hayabusa a project scientist and professor at Nagoya University, said he is nevertheless thrilled. “There are a lot of (samples) and they seem to contain a lot of organic matter,” he said. “So I hope we can find out a lot of things about how organic substances developed on Ryugu’s parent body.”

Half of Hayabusa-2The samples will be shared between JAXA, the US space agency NASA and other international organizations. The rest will be saved for future studies as advances will be made in analytical technology. But work is not over for the investigation, which will now begin an extended mission targeting two new asteroids.

Earlier this year in October, NASA OSIRIS-REx a spacecraft has also successfully collected samples from asteroid Bennu, which is more than 200 million miles (321 million kilometers) from Earth. The spacecraft, launched in September 2016, captured dust and rocks from a Bennu sample called Nightingale. It is expected to return them to Earth by 2023, after beginning their return journey in March 2021, when Bennu and Earth will be right rows in their orbits.

In addition to revealing further information on how the Solar System formed, Bennu’s samples will be crucial for a better understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth in the future. According to NASA, Bennu is a potentially dangerous asteroid that could ever threaten the planet.

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