A Japanese Space Mission Has Brought a Piece of Asteroid Down to Earth

This is the second time a Japanese space capsule has captured asteroid material.

view of a night sky with a spacecraft falling to Earth
JAXA's Hayabusa-2 probe's sample drops to earth after landing on and gathering material from an asteroid some 300 million kilometres from Earth, seen from Coober Pedy in South Australia on December 6, 2020. Photo: MORGAN SETTE/AFP via Getty

Japan has made history yet again — this time by bringing asteroid samples down to Earth. It’s only the second time in history that mankind has managed this difficult feat, and as for the first time? That sample was also captured and brought to Earth on a Japanese mission.

According to Space.com, a small capsule carrying pieces of the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu landed on Dec. 5 within the remote Woomera Prohibited Area, about 310 miles northwest of the South Australian city of Adelaide.

Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission started studying the 3,000-foot-wide Ryugu asteroid from up close in June 2018. Located millions of miles away, Hayabusa2 eventually captured its samples in November 2019, before beginning its journey back to Earth.

Ten years ago, Hayabusa2’s predecessor brought space rock samples home from the stony asteroid Itokawa. The yield was small — less than one milligram — but the Hayabusa2 capsule is expected to carry more than 100 milligrams of asteroid material.

“The materials that formed the Earth, its oceans, and life were present in the primordial cloud from which our solar system formed. In the early solar system, these materials were in contact and able to chemically interact within the same parent objects,” Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) officials wrote in a report, summarizing the Hayabusa2 mission.

“These interactions are retained even today in primitive bodies (C-type asteroids), so returning samples from these bodies for analysis will elucidate the origins and evolution of the solar system and the building blocks of life,” they added.

Megan Clark and Masaki Fujimoto bump fists at a press conference
Australian Space Agency head Megan Clark and Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, attend a press conference in Woomera, South Australia on December 6, 2020, after samples collected from a distant asteroid arrived on Earth after being dropped off by Japanese space probe Hayabusa-2. MORGAN SETTE/AFP via Getty

Beyond the amount of asteroid material that Hayabusa2 has brought home, the purity of the sample is also critical. Researchers already have access to plenty of meteorites, but these “free” asteroid samples have been significantly altered by their trip through Earth’s atmosphere, as well as their time on this planet’s surface, Space.com reports.

Hayabusa2 was recovered the day after it touched down in Australia. It will be delivered to the JAXA Extraterrestrial Sample Curation Center in Japan before pieces of the Ryugu materials are sent to labs around the world for other scientists to study. The hope is that this sample will help researchers understand the solar system’s early days and the rise of life on Earth.

Jessica Poitevien is a Travel + Leisure contributor currently based in South Florida, but always on the lookout for the next adventure. Besides traveling, she loves baking, talking to strangers, and taking long walks on the beach. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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