Scientists at Japan’s space agency on Tuesday confirmed the capsule they recovered last week from their Hayabusa2 probe that had landed on an asteroid did indeed contain samples collected from that heavenly body.
The Hayabusa spacecraft was launched in 2014 and arrived at the near-Earth asteroid called Ryugu in 2018. The probe spent about a year and a half orbiting, observing and eventually landing on the asteroid, where it collected samples.
It headed back toward Earth last year, finally dropping its collection capsule into Earth’s atmosphere December 5. It was recovered in a remote area of Australia and delivered to the Tokyo-based Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) last week.
At a press conference on Tuesday, JAXA scientists said they took their time and great care to open the capsule, to preserve any gases and other materials collected on Ryugu. Until it was opened, they could not be sure they obtained what they were after.
JAXA's Hayabusa project manager Yuichi Tsuda said the capsule contained plenty of soil samples and gas.
"It has been more than 10 years since we started this project, and six years have passed since we launched it," he told reporters. "The asteroid soils that we dreamed of are finally in our hands."
Scientists say they believe the samples, especially ones taken from under the asteroid's surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet.
They are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in the samples.
JAXA hopes to find clues about how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth. They intend to distribute portions of their samples to other researchers around the world, including scientists with the U.S. space agency, NASA.