Six years after leaving Earth, Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft released a rotating capsule on Saturday containing intact asteroid material for scorching re-entry and landing in a remote Australian outskirts where troops are standing to retrieve specimens for analysis.
The robot’s asteroid explorer kicked out a nearly 16-inch (40-centimeter)-diameter sampling carrier at 12:30 a.m. EST (0530 GMT) after the capsule ran precisely toward the South Australian recovery zone.
The release spring system is expected to spin the capsule to stabilize the craft for the remainder of its journey to Earth.
Engineers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s inspection center confirmed the separation of the return capsules when Hayabusa 2 closed at about 136,000 miles or 220,000 kilometers on Earth.
The returning capsule was expected to close this distance in 12 hours, culminating in a fall into the Earth’s atmosphere at 12:28 EST (1728 GMT). Protected by a heat shield, the outside of the sample carrier will reach a temperature of approximately 5400 Fahrenheit (3000 degrees Celsius).
The capsule slowly decelerates from nearly 26,000 mph (11.6 kilometers / second) to about 6,700 mph (3 kilometers / second) in less than a minute.
A few minutes later, traveling at a speed of about 220 mph (100 meters per second), the capsule leaves its heat shield and launches a parachute at an altitude of about 10,000 kilometers, gently descending toward the recovery of Hayabusa 2 in the Woomera forbidden zone of South Australia.
The touchdown is expected in a 10-minute window at EST 12:47 (1247 GMT). The exact time is uncertain due to scattering on the craft trajectory.
Meanwhile, the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft performed three diversion maneuvers shortly after releasing the sample return capsule. Orbit correction steered Hayabusa 2 on an orbit to travel a few hundred miles above Earth, allowing the spacecraft to observe the re-entry of the sample capsule before traveling back into deep space on a longer mission to visit two more asteroids in 2026- and in 2031. .
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Japanese scientists, with the help of Australian government officials, were in Woomera for a few weeks setting up tracking equipment, setting up antennas and practicing recovery procedures.
The Australian Army, which oversees operations at the Woomera Range Complex in South Australia, provides support and access to the Hayabusa 2 landing zone.
Japan’s first asteroid sample return mission, called Hayabusa, in June 2010 brought back microscopic samples with a successful parachute aid. The Hayabusa mission suffered from problems with the sample collection mechanism, limiting the amount of asteroid material returning to Earth.
Hayabusa 2 completed its six-year mission, which began in December 2014 from Japan aboard an H-2A missile, almost flawlessly. After a three-and-a-half-year voyage, the spacecraft reached its half-mile (900-meter) asteroid, Ryugu, in June 2018, crossing Earth’s orbit.
The spacecraft dropped a landing and rover fleet to explore the asteroid’s surface in late 2018, including a bouncing robot developed by German and French engineers.
Hayabusa 2 then turned to Ryugu for two touch-and-go landings in 2019 to collect rock fragments from two different locations. During one of the sample collection maneuvers, Hayabusa 2 descended into an artificial crater created by an explosive device released by the spacecraft, allowing the probe to collect material from the surface of the asteroid.
Scientists can’t wait to analyze samples that are expected to contain organic molecules. Researchers believe that asteroids like Ryugu, or a larger body like the one Ryugu divorced, could have ingested the Earth with the materials it needs to live.
Hayabusa 2 set out from Ryuga in November 2019 to begin its one-year journey to Earth.
The probe reshaped its orbit through the solar system with ion-thrust forces, and the ion-propulsion system completed its work in September after directing the spacecraft back to Earth. Further burn injuries from the spacecraft’s conventional rocket engines refined the approach and targeted a recovery ellipse at the Woomera that is about 150 miles long and 100 miles wide.
Mission planners designed Hayabusa 2 to collect at least 100 milligrams of material from the asteroid Ryugu. Engineers have no way to measure the contents of the sample tank until it returns to Earth, but they are confident that the spacecraft has collected the necessary material for the near-perfect performance of the sampling system during last year’s touch-down landing. .
The Australian recovery team uses a radio beacon to find the Hayabusa 2 sample holder and then fix it for a flight to Sagamihara, Japan, where scientists are transporting the capsule to an ultra-clean care facility. The researchers open the tank and extract the asteroid samples with sophisticated laboratory equipment for analysis.
Scientists hope that carbonated minerals from Ryugu shed light on the origins of the Solar System more than 4.5 billion years ago and provide clues as to how water and the building blocks of life came to Earth.
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