Tokyo: Japanese scientists began analyzing the space capsule returned to Earth by the probe on Tuesday, hoping to find asteroid material that can provide clues about how the universe formed.
Officials from Japan’s space agency said they were jubilant about the successful return of the capsule, which landed in Australia on Sunday after separating from the Hayabusa-2 probe.
“I’m genuinely appreciative of the fact that the capsule came back, after a 5.24 billion-kilometre round-trip,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda told reporters.
Scientists hope it will yield up to 0.1 grams of material collected from the asteroid Ryugu some 300 million kilometres from Earth — though they won’t know for sure until they look inside.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing (the samples) with my own eyes,” Tsuda said.
But this will not happen until at least next week. First, a series of steps need to be taken to ensure that the material is not contaminated.
The head of the agency, Hitoshi Kuninaka, said that the capsule is currently “in a safe position” at a space center in Sagamihara, southern Tokyo.
“Now we move to the matter-analysis phase,” he said.
The samples collected last year are hoped to include surface dust and raw materials that were agitated when Hayabusa-2 launched the Impactor at the Dragon.
Scientists hope they can clarify the formation process of the universe and the origin of life on earth.
The NASA has already begun to carefully collect space capsules, starting with the collection of internal gas. It will be opened under strict conditions, including a nitrogen-filled box for capsules.
“The key is that samples will not be polluted by Earth’s environment… so they can be provided to researchers around the world,” said Tomohiro Usui, leader of the extraterrestrial matter-analysis group.
“If we see something black inside the capsule, which is itself made of aluminium and whiteish, it’s near-certain it is from Ryugu,” he added.
“But that is just supporting evidence, and we’ll not be able to say something for sure until we do chemical analysis.”
The nature of the gas extracted from the capsule also needs to be clarified, though officials said they believe it too was collected from the asteroid.
Half of the samples of abbird 2 will be shared by the Japan Space Agency and other international organizations, and the rest will be kept for future research in order to make technological progress.
The mission of the probe has been extended for more than a decade, and two new asteroids are now being targeted for observation.