Vastavam web: An armored re-entry capsule carrying pristine specimens from an asteroid streaked into Earth’s atmosphere and parachuted to a landing in the Australian outback Saturday, bringing home extraterrestrial rocks that could hold clues to the origin of life on Earth. The Hayabusa 2 mission’s six-year round-trip journey to asteroid Ryugu ended Saturday with the landing of the spacecraft’s sample return capsule near Woomera, Australia. Recovery teams dispatched via helicopter began hunting for the 35-pound (16-kilogram) capsule using estimates of its landing site derived from a radio beacon signal.
Mission managers expected it could take several hours to find the capsule and recover it. The landing occurred before dawn in Australia. Engineers at JAXA’s control center monitored the return of the sample capsule, which flew autonomously without propulsion. Ground controllers had no way to command the capsule after it separated from the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft earlier Saturday. A live webcast from JAXA showed the capsule speeding through the atmosphere over Australia with a plasma trail behind it. Temperatures outside the capsule — which was protected by a carbon heat shield — were predicted to reach as high as 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit (3,000 degrees Celsius).
Two NASA Gulfstream jets carrying scientists and observation instruments were in position over South Australia to image the return capsule’s plunge through the atmosphere. Imagery of the fireball could help engineers improve heat shield designs on future spacecraft, according to NASA. Approaching the landing zone from the north, Hayabusa 2’s return capsule jettisoned its heat shield and deployed a parachute to slow its descent before touching down in a remote part of the Woomera Range Complex run by the Royal Australian Air Force. Japan’s first asteroid sample return mission, named Hayabusa, brought back microscopic specimens with a successful parachute-assisted landing at Woomera in June 2010.
“Japan has yet again made history by becoming the first nation to carry out a successful asteroid retrieval mission — not once, but twice,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science directorate. “We’re excited for Hayabusa 2’s return and the collaborative science we will undertake involving Hayabusa 2 as well as samples from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.” OSIRIS-REx collected rocks from asteroid Bennu in October, and will begin its return expedition to Earth next year, targeting a landing in the Utah desert in September 2023.