Almost six years after the mission was launched – on December 3, 2014 – the sample capsule of the Japanese Hayabusa 2 probe landed last night at the Woomera Experimental Field in Australia. Inside are samples taken from two different locations on asteroid 162173 Ryugu. The second of the samples was taken in the crater caused by the impact of a projectile fired at the asteroid by the probe with the idea of being able to access material that had not been exposed to the conditions of space for billions of years.

A curious aspect of the recovery of the capsule is that since the parachute was fired with pyrotechnic devices, the first people to approach it were two firefighters who verified that none of these devices were left that had not been fired.

Now, after an initial inspection, the capsule will be taken immediately to Japan, where it will be opened in a special chamber filled with nitrogen to ensure that the samples are not contaminated in any way.

But in addition to bringing those samples to Earth, Hayabusa 2 was the first mission to deploy not one but three rovers on an asteroid, Minerva II 1A and 1B, and MASCOT. A fourth rover failed before deployment so it was released into orbit around Ryugu to make measurements of its gravity by studying its trajectory until it impacted the asteroid’s surface a few days later.

All this adds up to all the data obtained by the optical cameras, the spectrometer and the thermal camera that have helped determine the topography and composition of the Ryugu surface.

Hayabusa 2 was a complex mission but it was undoubtedly a great success for the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and its partners in the mission, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the French Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), who designed and built MASCOT.

It is also a great tribute to the mission of the Hayabusa probe, which between 2003 and 2010 managed to bring home samples of the asteroid Itokawa. The mission had all sorts of problems but the perseverance of its team managed to bring it to a successful conclusion. And it is clear that the JAXA took good note of what they learned from how well everything worked with Hayabusa 2.

In fact, taking advantage of the fact that the probe is still in very good health yesterday, after having left the sample capsule on its final return trajectory, it started its extended mission. In it it travels to the asteroid 1998 KY26. It is scheduled to arrive there in 2031 after several gravitational assistance maneuvers from Earth. And on the way it will make a flyover of asteroid 2001 CC21 in 2026. A great new challenge for the mission team.

Hayabusa 2 is the second mission in history to bring samples of an asteroid to Earth for study. The first was Hayabusa. And if all goes well in September 2023, NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission, which by the end of October 2020 was sampling the asteroid Bennu, will be the third.

The study of the asteroids allows us to get an idea of how things were in the times when our solar system originated, as they are a kind of frozen samples preserved in space since then.

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