Japan’s Asteroid Sample Return Capsule is Back on Earth

Japan’s Asteroid Sample Return Capsule is Back on Earth

Japan’s Hayabusa2 asteroid sample return capsule landed near Woomera, Australia this afternoon Eastern Standard Time, ending a 6-year quest. Returning samples of asteroid Ryugu was Hayabusa2’s primary purpose, but now that it has dropped off the capsule, the main spacecraft is continuing on to rendezvous with another asteroid in 2031.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) tweeted that the capsule was located at 2:47 pm Eastern Standard Time today (December 6, 4:47 am Japan Standard Time) after a helicopter search, ending this phase of the mission. JAXA will not know how much material was returned until the capsule is opened.

The Australian Space Agency, which partnered with JAXA for the recovery operations, tweeted photos after it was located.

As its name implies, this is JAXA’s second Hayabusa mission. The original Hayabusa brought back samples of the asteroid Itokawa in 2010 after surmounting a number of technical issues that almost doomed the mission.  Only a small amount of material was returned, about 1,500 grains, but enough to earn JAXA accolades as the first to do it.

Hayabusa2 is an even more ambitious mission.  Not only did it collect samples, but deposited three tiny landers/rovers on the surface of Ryugu and fired an impactor to excavate material below the surface. Hayabusa2 briefly touched on Ryugu twice to collect both surface samples and part of what was exposed by the impact.

Illustration of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft near Earth. Credit: JAXA

Launched in December 2014, Hayabusa2 arrived at Ryugu on June 28, 2018 and spent a year and a half orbiting the small space rock. In September 2018, the first two lander/rovers, MINERVA-II1 (A and B), were deposited on the surface. The next month, the French/German MASCOT lander was deployed.  Then in February 2019, Hayabusa2 touched down on Ryugu for the first time. In April, it fired the Small Carry-on Impactor and touched down a second time in July to collect samples of that material.  In November, it departed Ryugu for the year-long trip back to Earth.

Ryugu as photographed by Hayabusa2 from an altitude of about 20 kilometers (12 miles). Credit: JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu and AIST.

Today, the sample return capsule landed in the Woomera Prohibited Area in Australia, which was also the landing site for Hayabusa. The capsule separated from its mothership as it flew close to Earth. JAXA showed live video of the fireball as the capsule reentered through Earth’s atmosphere and tweeted photos afterwards.

The fireball also was captured by an external camera aboard the International Space Station (ISS). JAXA’s Soichi Nogichi is one of the ISS crew members right now. The fireball appears at about 13:22 in the video.

The Hayabusa2 mothership is continuing on its “extended mission” and will visit asteroid 998 KY26 in 2031, swinging by Earth twice on its way, in December 2027 and June 2028.  The spacecraft still has onboard cameras and other scientific instruments, as well as one target marker and one projectile left over from the Ryugu visit. The small asteroid, just 30 meters in diameter, is spinning once every 10 minutes, making it a challenging object to study, but JAXA hopes to be able to drop the target market or perhaps even touchdown.

NASA has its own asteroid sample return mission underway, OSIRIS-REx, which collected samples of the asteroid Bennu.  It will return to Earth in 2023. The two space agencies have agreed to share their samples.


Updated with additional tweets/photos.

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