Japanese space agency officials said Tuesday they found more than the anticipated amount of ground and gas inside a small capsule of the country’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft brought back from an asteroid removed this month, a mission they praised as an important stage in planetary research.
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency said its staff initially saw some black particles placed on the bottom of the capsule’s sample collector when they removed the container on Monday. By Tuesday, scientists found several samples of soil and gas in a compartment that stored the first of Hayabusa’s two touchdowns on the asteroid last year.
“We have confirmed a good amount of sand apparently collected from the asteroid Ryugu, along with the gases,” Yuichi Tsuda, JAXA Hayabusa2 project manager, said in a video message during an online press conference. “Evidence from outside our planet, which we have long dreamed of, is now in our hands.”
Tsuda called the successful return of asteroid soil and gas samples “a major scientific step.”
The 40-centimeter (15-inch) pan-shaped capsule was thrown by Hayabusa2 from space at a predetermined location in a sparsely populated Australian desert on December 6, at the end of its six-way journey. years at Ryugu, more than 300 million kilometers (190 million miles) of Earth.
The capsule arrived in Japan on Tuesday last year for research that scientists hope will provide information about the origins of the solar system and life on Earth.
Hirotaka Sawada, a JAXA scientist, was the first to look inside the capsule’s sample collector. Sawada said he was “almost speechless” with joy when he discovered that the evidence inside included some that were, as expected, the size of dust, but also some the size of pebbles.
The soil samples in the photos presented in Tuesday’s presentation looked like piles of black coffee grounds mixed with granules.
Sawada said the sealed capsule successfully brought asteroid gases that are clearly different from the air on Earth – a first evidence of the return of gases from outer space. Kyushu University scientist Ryuji Okazaki said the gases could be related to minerals in the asteroid’s soil and hoped to identify gaseous samples and determine their age.
Scientists hope that samples from the asteroid’s underground can provide information from billions of years ago that is unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. JAXA scientists say they are particularly interested in the organic materials in the samples to find out how they were distributed in the solar system and whether they are related to life on Earth.
Sei-ichiro Watanabe, a scientist at Nagoya University who works with JAXA, said having more evidence to work with than expected is great news because it will expand the scope of his studies.
The samples were collected from two touchdowns that Hayabusa2 made on Ryugu last year. Landings were more difficult than expected due to the asteroid’s extremely rocky surface.
The first landing collected evidence from Ryugu’s surface and the second from underground. Each was stored separately. JAXA said it will look into another compartment, used for a second touchdown, next week, and will continue an initial examination before further studies of the material.
Following studies in Japan, some of the evidence will be shared with NASA and other international space agencies for further research starting in 2022.
Meanwhile, Hayabusa2 is on an 11-year expedition to another asteroid to try to study possible defenses against meteorites that could fly to Earth.