EXPLAINER: What has Japanese space mission accomplished?

Full Screen
1 / 4

JAXA

FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020 photo provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), a member of JAXA retrieves a capsule dropped by Hayabusa2 in Woomera, southern Australia. The small capsule from Japans Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully landed in a sparsely populated desert in the Australian Outback on Sunday. (JAXA via AP, File)

TOKYO – A small capsule containing asteroid soil samples that was dropped from 136,700 miles (220,000 kilometers) in space by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft landed as planned in the Australian Outback on Sunday. After a preliminary inspection, it will be flown to Japan for research. The extremely high precision required to carry out the mission thrilled many in Japan, who said they took pride in its success. The project’s manager, Yuichi Tsuda of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, called the capsule a “treasure box.” The AP explains the significance of the project and what comes next.

WHAT IS THE HAYABUSA2 MISSION?

Launched on Dec. 3, 2014, the unmanned Hayabusa2 spacecraft touched down twice on the asteroid Ryugu, more than 300 million kilometers (190 million miles) away from Earth. The asteroid's extremely rocky surface forced the mission's team to revise landing plans, but the spacecraft successfully collected data and soil samples during the 1½ years it spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.

In its first touchdown in February 2019, the spacecraft collected surface dust samples, similar to NASA’s recent touch-and-go grab by Osiris REx on the asteroid Bennu. Hayabusa2 later blasted a crater into the asteroid's surface and then collected underground samples from the asteroid, a first for space history. In late 2019, Hayabusa2 left Ryugu. That yearlong journey ended Sunday.

Japan hopes to use the expertise and technology used in the Hayabusa2 in the future, perhaps in its 2024 MMX sample-return mission to a Martian moon.

___

WHY AN ASTEROID?

Asteroids orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets. They are among the oldest objects in the solar system and therefore may contain clues into how Earth evolved. Scientists say that requires studying samples from such celestial objects.