TOKYO (AP) – A Japanese spacecraft is approaching Earth after a one-year journey from a distant asteroid with soil samples and data that could provide clues about the origin of the solar system, an astronaut said on Friday.
The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is expected to leave the asteroid Ryuku, about 300 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth a year ago, reach Earth and drop a capsule containing precious samples into South Australia on December 6.
Scientists at the Japan Space Research Organization believe that samples taken from the asteroid’s surface, in particular, contain valuable data that are not affected by space radiation and other environmental factors.
Makoto Yoshikawa, project manager for the Hayabusa 2 project, said scientists were particularly interested in analyzing organic matter in Riyaku soil samples.
“Organic matter is the origin of life on Earth, but we still do not know where they came from (the star),” Yoshikawa said. “We hope to find traces of the origin of life on Earth by analyzing the details of the organic matter that Hayabusa 2 brought back.”
Jaxa, the space agency, plans to drop the prototype capsule into a remote, sparsely populated area of space from 220,000 kilometers (136,700 miles) in Australia, which is a major challenge that requires precise control. The capsule, protected by a thermal shield, turns into a fireball when it re-enters the atmosphere 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the ground. About 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the ground, a parachute will open to land and beacon signals will be sent to indicate its location.
Jaxa crews have set up satellite dishes at various locations in the target area to capture the signals, while also preparing marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and rescue mission.
Without those measures, the search for a 40-centimeter (15-inch) diameter Pan-shaped capsule would be “very difficult,” Yoshikawa told reporters.
For Hayabusa 2, this is not the end of the work that began in 2014. After dropping the capsule, it returned to space, 10 years toward another distant small asteroid called 1998KY26.
Hayabusa 2 touched down on Ryuu twice, despite its rocky surface, successfully collecting data and samples in the 10 years since it arrived there in June 2018.
In First Touchdown in February 2019, it collected surface dust samples. In July, it collected ground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history, which had previously formed by exploding the surface of the asteroid after landing in a crater.
Scientists say asteroid soil samples contain traces of carbon and organic matter. Jaxa hopes to find clues as to how materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth.
Asteroids that orbit the sun but are much smaller than the planets are one of the oldest objects in the solar system, so they can help explain how the Earth formed.
It took the spacecraft 3 years to reach Ryu, but the journey home was very short due to the current locations of Ryu and Earth.
Riku in Japanese means “Dragon Palace”, the name of the under-sea castle in Japanese folklore.
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