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Hayabusa2 capsule returns with first-ever gas sample from deep space

It must be an incredibly special moment for scientists when they first open a capsule that’s just returned from an ambitious sample-collection mission in deep space. So long as it’s not empty.

We’re happy to report that the re-entry capsule recently returned to Earth by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft did indeed contain a number of goodies collected from the Ryugu asteroid last year as it hurtled through space hundreds of millions of miles from Earth.

The confirmation came this week after scientists at a lab near Tokyo unsealed the capsule just over a week after Hayabusa2 deposited the precious cargo in the Australian outback.

“A large number of particles are confirmed to be in ‘sample chamber A’ inside the collected capsule,’ JAXA, Japan’s space agency, said in a tweet, adding that while the small particles shown in the accompanying photo may look brown, they are in fact black.

A large number of particles are confirmed to be in “sample chamber A” inside the collected capsule (~11:10 JST on 12/15). This is thought to be the sample from the first touchdown on Ryugu. The photo looks brown, but our team says “black”! The sample return is a great success!

— HAYABUSA2@JAXA (@haya2e_jaxa) December 15, 2020

The agency also said that it succeeded in extracting from the capsule a sample of gas taken from the Ryugu asteroid, describing it as “the world’s first sample return of a material in the gas state from deep space.” Scientists will now carry out a detailed analysis of the molecular and isotopic composition of the gas.

It’s hoped that the collected material — both gas and particles — will offer researchers new insight into the origins and evolution of the solar system, among other possible discoveries.

The Hayabusa2 mission

JAXA’s challenging mission launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwest Japan six years ago this month.

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft reached the Ryugu asteroid in June 2018 after a three-and-a-half-year journey of around 180 million miles.

In February 2019, Hayabusa2 achieved the first of two landings on the 900-meter-wide asteroid, collecting a sample of granules from its surface. Preparations for the more challenging procedure of collecting the first-ever sample from beneath an asteroid’s surface started in April 2019 with Hayabusa2 firing a two-kilogram “bullet” into Ryugu to loosen rock particles. A few months later, the spacecraft made its second landing to gather up the material before transferring it to the capsule ahead of the crucial return journey to Earth that ended earlier this month.

“The sample return mission has been perfectly completed,” JAXA’s Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda said this week, with the scientific community and space fans hoping that the asteroid material can unlock some secrets regarding the formation of our solar system.

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Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
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