The view up close as Japan’s Hayabusa2 asteroid sample makes perfect landing

It surprised, dazzled, then disappeared in a flash. In the early hours of Sunday morning, local time, the sample capsule of Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft plowed through the atmosphere over the Australian mining town of Coober Pedy, blazing an ephemeral trail of fire through the sky.

Above the Lookout Cave Motel in the center of town, just before 4 a.m. local time (9:30 p.m. PT), about a dozen people gathered and mingled. Tripods were erected and camera equipment was fine-tuned and pointed at the sky. Then, without a sound, a twinkling point of light appeared out of the dark. It moved quickly. The crowd erupted with “oohs” and some pointed their phones at the sky.

Among those wowed by the show were 34-year-old Ross, from Townsville, and his two sons, 6-year-old Max and 8-year-old Chase. “It was pretty cool,” Ross said. “It was worth getting up early for.”

Locked within the capsule is the first ever subsurface sample from an asteroid. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) confirmed that the 16-inch container had touched down on the flat, ochre plains of the Woomera Prohibited Area more than 200 miles southeast of Coober Pedy at approximately 4:37 a.m. local time (10:07 a.m. PT, Saturday). 

The landing is the culmination of a decade of work by JAXA scientists and engineers, and it comes six years after Hayabusa2, which is about the size of a washing machine, departed Earth. The spacecraft travelled over 3.2 billion miles on its journey to near-Earth asteroid Ryugu and back, spending over a year using specialized cameras, radar and an infrared imager to survey the spinning top-shaped rock. On two occasions in 2019, it collected samples from the surface in brief snatch-and-go maneuvers.

Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director of JAXA’s Institute for Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), says the mission has been one of the defining moments of his life, As it came to a close, it was obvious the stunning finale and recovery operations would be bittersweet.

“This is the last time we will all be together,” Fujimoto said. 

There’s still some work to do yet, starting with ensuring the contents of the capsule are safe. The recovery mission took place in the predawn dark of the outback and confirmation of the capsule’s collection is still pending.

Outback adventure

The Australian Space Agency and the Department of Defense (DOD) played a significant role in the capsule’s safe return. The DOD manages the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA), a huge swathe of land, about half the size of the United Kingdom, where the capsule was guided after release from Hayabusa2 on Saturday. Road closures kept residents from passing through the region for almost 12 hours, as a precautionary measure.

JAXA engineers tightened the final landing zone to an area about one-tenth that size, with some deft maneuvering while the spacecraft was traveling back to Earth. 

The sample entered the Earth’s atmosphere moving at about 7.5 miles per second, but as it hit the dense atmosphere it slowed down to around 110 yards per second, throwing off its heat shield and deploying its parachute. After gliding for about 20 minutes, it landed on the red, Mars-like plains of the WPA. 

To help locate the sample capsule, members of the Defence Force locked on to it as it first began burning through the atmosphere, tracking it with ground cameras and radar. This enabled the JAXA team to locate the sample and send its helicopter team to fly out and collect it at approximately 4:47 a.m., local. The very first person who had the honor of touching the capsule was a safety officer, says Satoru Nakazawa, who led the recovery mission.

Once it acquired the capsule, the recovery team quickly ferried it to a pop-up laboratory within the Woomera Range Operations Center, known as the Quick Look Facility or QLF.

What’s in the box?

The team predicts that Hayabusa2 collected about one gram of material from Ryugu, based on observations from the spacecraft’s cameras. Confirmation of exactly what was nabbed during Hayabusa2’s two heists is expected over the coming weeks. 

JAXA’s specialist retrieval team located the capsule at approximately 5:34 a.m. local time and took it back to the QLF for testing. According to JAXA’s Hayabusa2 Twitter account, all operations ended at 6:01 a.m. local (11:31 a.m. PT). “The operation was perfect,” the tweet read.

Hajime Yano, a scientist with ISAS, says the sample capsule won’t be opened until it’s returned to the ISAS…

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