The Japanese space agency is nearing the end of a voyage of discovery aimed at illuminating the early solar system and giving clues about the origin of life on Earth.
But first, it needs to do a scavenger hunt in the Australian outback.
This weekend, an asteroid will land in a barren area near Woomera, South Australia. The robotic spacecraft, Hayabusa 2, launched in 2014 by the Japanese space agency Jaxa, is being launched to Earth. To explore the asteroid Rugu, a dark, carbon-rich rock more than half a mile wide.
The success of the mission and the science it produces will elevate Japan’s status as a central player in deep space exploration, along with NASA, the European Space Agency and Russia. Jaxa currently has A spacecraft in orbit around Venus Learning Hell weather on that planet And cooperating with Europeans on a mission On the way to Mercury.
The immediate challenge is to search in the dark for a 16-inch-wide pill containing asteroid samples somewhere between hundreds of square miles 280 miles north of the nearest large city, Adelaide.
“It’s really nowhere,” said Shogo 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 in Wumara to retrieve the capsule. This area, used for the Australian military experiment, provides a wide open space that is ideal for the return of an interplanetary spacecraft.
The small return capsule was 125,000 miles from Earth, 12 hours before it was detached from the main spacecraft. Jaxa Live coverage will be broadcast The landing of the capsule begins at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday. (Sunday morning in Australia.)
The pill is expected to fall to the ground a few minutes before noon.
In an interview, mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa said there is uncertainty as to whether the capsule will re-enter the atmosphere at a distance of 10 km or six miles. At a height of six miles, the capsule will release a parachute, which will increase the uncertainty as it descends.
“The landing area depends on the winds of the day,” said Dr. Yoshikawa said. He said the area to be searched would cover up to 60 miles.
The superheated air created by the re-entering capsule will help guide the fireball path recovery team, as well as the radio beacon of the capsule. If the beacon fails or the parachute fails to deploy, the task becomes more difficult.
It’s a little busy. The team hopes to recover the capsule, perform preliminary analysis and return to Japan within 100 hours. Although the capsule is sealed, there is a concern that the earth’s air will slowly leak out. “There is no perfect ceiling,” said Dr. Thachibana said.
Once the capsule is found, a helicopter will take it to a laboratory set up at the Australian Air Force base in Womera. An instrument would extract any gases inside the capsule, and when they re-entered, the asteroid rocks. Scientists also know if they can detect any solar gas particles of helium that have fallen on asteroids and rocks. Yoshikawa said.
The gases assure scientists that samples from Hayabusa 2 Ryugu have been successfully collected. A minimum of 0.1 g, or less than 1/280 of an ounce, is required to declare success. Hope is the spacecraft that brought back several grams.
In Japan, the Hayabusa 2 team will begin analyzing Rugu samples. In about a year, some samples will be shared with other scientists for further study.
To collect these samples, Hayabusa 2 arrived on the asteroid in June 2018. This led to numerous investigations that increased the technical complexity. This dropped the spacecraft to the surface of Ryugu, A hole burst in the asteroid A much more challenging operation than expected due to the numerous rocks on the surface, to examine the bottom and twice descending to the surface to capture small pieces of the asteroid.
Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences, part of Jaxa, said that astronomers focused on studying planets did not have much interest in small worlds like Ruge. “Minor bodies, who cares?” He said. “But if you’re serious about the formation of planets, small objects really matter.”
The study of water trapped in minerals from Ryugu suggests that if the water in the Earth’s oceans were from asteroids, carbon-based molecules could be seeded to build life-sustaining blocks.
A portion of the Rugby samples will go to NASA, which will bring back some rocks and soil from another asteroid with its Osiris-Rex mission. The Osiris-Rex space probe studies Benu, a carbon-rich asteroid It will return to Earth next spring, In September 2023 it dropped its rock samples.
Rugby and Bennu have become miraculously similar in some ways, looking like spinning tops, and have surfaces covered with rocks, but different in other ways. One of the rocks in Ryugu has very little water. The significance of the similarities and differences will not become clear until scientists study the rocks in more detail.
“When the Osiris-Rex sample returns, we can learn from the Hayabusa 2 mission,” said Harold C. Snyder, professor of geology at Rowan University in New Jersey and mission sample scientist at Osiris-Rex. Connolly Jr. said. “The similarities and differences are quite compelling.”
He said he would travel to Japan next summer to participate in the analysis of Ryugu samples.
Hayabusa 2 is not the first planetary mission in Japan. Its name points to the existence of Hayabusa, a former mission that brought back samples from another asteroid, Itokawa. Launched in 2003 and returned in 2010, the mission encountered major technical problems. Jaxa’s Akatsuki spacecraft is currently in orbit around Venus, and after years of difficulty, the Japanese agency has been able to restore it to a scientific mission. A Japanese mission to Mars also failed in 2003.
In contrast, the Hayabusa 2’s functionality, while maintaining the same general design as its predecessor, went flawlessly. “There are no really big problems,” said Mission Manager Dr. Yoshikawa said. “Small, of course.”
The team studied the failures of Hayabusa in detail, made changes as needed and conducted several rehearsals.
Japanese missions usually operate on smaller budgets than NASA, so often carry only a few instruments. Hayabusa 2 is priced at less than $ 300 million, while Osiris-Rex is priced at $ 1 billion.
Leaving the Rugby samples is not the end of the Hayabusa 2 mission. After the return capsule was released, the main spacecraft changed course to avoid a collision with Earth, losing 125 miles. It will now move to another asteroid, a small 100-foot-diameter but rapidly orbiting planet named 1998 KY26, which completes one rotation in 11 minutes.
Hayabusa 2 will fly automatically to KY26 using two Earth flybies, eventually arriving in 2031. Some astronomical experiments will be carried out on its deep space travel and spacecraft. It still carries one last projectile that could be used To test the surface of that space rock.