The Japanese Space Agency is nearing the end of a discovery mission aimed at illuminating the early ages of the solar system and possibly providing clues about the origins of life on Earth.
But first, it will have to do a scavenger hunt in the Australian outback.
This weekend, parts of an asteroid will land in an arid region near Woomera, South Australia. It is carried to Earth by Hayabusa2, an automated space probe launched by the Japanese space agency JAXA in 2014 to explore an asteroid named Ryugu, which is a dark, carbon-rich rock just over half a mile wide.
The mission’s success and the science it produces will elevate Japan’s position as a central player in deep space exploration, alongside NASA, the European Space Agency and Russia. JAXA currently has it Spacecraft in orbit around Venus Study Arabic The infernal climate of this planet He cooperates with the Europeans on a mission On the way to Mercury.
But the immediate challenge will be to search in the dark for a 16-inch-wide capsule containing asteroid samples somewhere in the middle of hundreds of square miles in an area 280 miles north of Adelaide, the nearest large city.
“It’s really in the middle of nowhere,” said Shoujo Tachibana, the lead investigator in charge of analyzing the Hayabusa 2 samples. He is part of a team of more than 70 people from Japan who arrived at Woomera to retrieve the capsule. The area, which the Australian Army is using for testing, provides a large open space ideal for an interplanetary probe return.
The small return capsule separated from the main spacecraft about 12 hours before the scheduled landing, when it was about 125,000 miles away from Earth. Jaxa It will broadcast live coverage The capsule landing begins at 11:30 a.m. ET on Saturday. (The pre-dawn hours will be Sunday in Australia.)
The capsule is expected to hit the ground a few minutes before noon.
In an interview, Makoto Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said there is an uncertainty of about 10 kilometers, or about six miles, in determining where the capsule will return to the atmosphere. At a height of six miles, the capsule will launch a parachute, and where it drifts during its descent will add to the uncertainty.
“The location of the landing depends on the winds that day,” said Dr. Yoshikawa. He said the area that the researchers would have to cover could stretch about 60 miles.
The fireball trajectory of the superheated air generated by the re-inserted capsule will help guide the recovery team, as will the capsule’s radio beacon. The task will become more difficult if the pilot fails or if the parachute fails to deploy.
There is a bit of a rush, too. The team hopes to recover the capsule, carry out a preliminary analysis, and take it to Japan within 100 hours. Although the capsule is sealed, the concern is that the Earth’s air will slowly leak inwards. “There is no perfect seal,” said Dr. Tachibana.
Once the capsule is found, a helicopter will take it to the laboratory set up at the Australian Air Force base at Woomera. An instrument extracts any gases inside the capsule that the asteroid rocks may have released as they were shaken and shattered during re-entry. Dr. Yoshikawa said scientists also want to know if they can detect any particles from the solar wind from helium that collided with the asteroid and became embedded in the rocks.
The gases will also reassure scientists that Hayabusa 2 has indeed successfully collected samples from Ryugu. A minimum of 0.1 grams, or less than 1/280 of an ounce, is required to declare success. The hope is that the spacecraft fetched several fines.
In Japan, the Hayabusa2 team will begin analyzing Ryugu samples. In about a year, some samples will be shared with other scientists for additional study.
To collect these samples, Hayabusa2 reached the asteroid in June 2018. It carried out a series of investigations, each of escalating technical sophistication. I dropped the probes on the roof of Ryugu, The latest crater in the asteroid To look at what lay beneath it and twice descended to the surface to grab small pieces of the asteroid, a process that proved more difficult than expected due to the presence of so many rocks on the surface.
Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the Institute of Space Science and Astronautics, which is part of JAXA, said that small worlds like Ryugu were not of much interest to planetary scientists who focused on studying planets. “Small bodies, who cares?” He said. “But if you’re really serious about creating planetary systems, small objects really matter.”
A study of water trapped in minerals from Ryugu could give hints if the water in Earth’s oceans came from asteroids, and if carbon-based molecules could have seeded the building blocks of life.
Part of the Ryugu samples will go to NASA, which is returning some rocks and soil from another asteroid with the OSIRIS-REX mission. The The space probe Osiris-Rex has been studying a smaller, carbon-rich asteroid named Benno And you will return to Earth next spring, Rock samples drop in September 2023.
Ryugu and Bennu turn out to be surprisingly similar in some ways, they both look like rotating tops and rock-covered roofs, but they are different in other ways. The rocks in Ryugu seem to contain less water, for example. The importance of the similarities and differences will only become apparent after scientists study rocks in more detail.
“When the Osiris-Rex specimen returns, we will have lessons learned from the Hayabusa 2 mission,” said Harold Connolly Jr., professor of geology at Rowan University in New Jersey and mission sample scientist at Osiris Rex. “The similarities and differences are absolutely remarkable.”
Dr. Connolly hopes to go to Japan next summer to participate in analyzing Ryugu samples.
Hayabusa 2 is not Japan’s first planetary mission. In fact, its name indicates the existence of Hayabusa, a previous mission that brought samples from another asteroid, Itokawa. But that mission, which began in 2003 and returned in 2010, ran into major technical problems. So did the JAXA spacecraft, Akatsuki, which is currently in orbit around Venus, and which the Japanese agency managed to return to a scientific mission after years of difficulty. A Japanese mission to Mars in 2003 also failed.
By contrast, Hayabusa2’s operations went nearly flawless, although it maintains the same overall design as its predecessor. “Actually, there are no big problems,” said Dr. Yoshikawa, the director of the mission. “Of course, kids.”
He said the team had studied in detail the failures in Hayabusa and made changes as needed, and had also conducted numerous exercises to try to anticipate any emergencies it might encounter.
Japanese missions generally operate with smaller budgets than NASA, and thus carry fewer tools. Hayabusa2 will cost less than $ 300 million while OSIRIS-REX will cost around $ 1 billion.
Taking down Ryugu samples is not the end of Hayabusa2’s mission. After launching the return capsule, the main spacecraft changed course to avoid colliding with Earth, losing 125 miles. It will now travel to another asteroid, a small-sized asteroid identified in 1998, KY26 and only 100 feet in diameter but rotating rapidly, completing one revolution in less than 11 minutes.
Hayabusa2 will use two flight operations on Earth to head towards KY26, finally arriving in 2031. It will conduct some astronomical experiments during its extended journey into deep space and the spacecraft He’s still carrying one last projectile that he might use To test the surface of those space rocks.