Anxious researchers with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Tuesday said they have received a capsule containing samples collected from an asteroid after traveling five billion kilometers back to Earth.
The capsule, from Japan's spacecraft Hayabusa2, blasted off for the asteroid Ryugu in December 2014, overcoming an unexpectedly rough landing surface to collect samples of asteroid dust in a capsule. That capsule plunged to Earth in Australia on Sunday and was flown to Japan where it was delivered to the agency’s scientists.
At a news conference at JAXA in Sagamihara, about 51 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, space again scientists said the capsule is now secured safely in a curation facility at its research center.
Project manager Yuichi Tsuda acknowledged he became a little emotional when the capsule was delivered to the facility, saying, “When I saw it, after returning from a flight of 5 billion kilometers, I was really moved. It was really touching."
The researchers cannot immediately pry open the capsule and start examining the sample. A series of steps must be taken to ensure the sample is not contaminated. They say initial gas samples were taken from the capsule shortly after it was recovered. But the scientists will wait until the proper time to open it.
JAXA researcher Tomoshiro Usui said, "If things go well, I believe we can open the lid in the vacuum chamber and confirm the contents after next week at the earliest."
The Hayabasa2 orbited above Ryugu for a few months before landing, then used small explosives to blast a crater and collected the resulting debris, with the expectation that some 100 milligrams may have been gathered. Asteroids are believed to have formed at the dawn of the solar system, and scientists say the sample may contain organic matter that could have contributed to life on Earth.
Experts from NASA say the Japanese agency is planning to share samples of the material collected from Ryugu with six teams of scientists around the globe, including the U.S. space agency, by the end of next year.