A space capsule has landed in a blaze of light in the South Australian outback after travelling more than 5 billion kilometres on a six-year mission to collect samples from a faraway asteroid.
Scientists hope the mission will help answer some of the most fundamental questions about how our solar system formed and where elements, such as water, came from.
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft had successfully released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it toward Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said.
Early on Sunday the capsule briefly turned into a fireball as it re-entered the atmosphere 120km above Earth.
At about 10km above ground, a parachute was to open to slow its fall and beacon signals were to be activated to indicate its location.
Beacon signals have been detected, suggesting a parachute has also successfully opened and the capsule landed safely in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia, according to JAXA official Akitaka Kishi.
He said JAXA staff would use a helicopter to find the capsule.
A retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule, about 40 centimetres in diameter, was due to start after sunrise, he said.
JAXA officials said they hoped to retrieve the capsule by Sunday evening before a preliminary safety inspection at a Australian lab and bring it home early next week.
1 gram of material ‘enough’ to answer science’s questions
Launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre in 2014, it took four years for the Hayabusa2 spacecraft to reach its destination — the lumpy, diamond-shaped asteroid Ryugu.
Scientists said the asteroid was an example of the kind of meteorite that may have struck the early Earth to deliver the water and organic materials that make our planet habitable.
Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who is in Woomera for the arrival of the capsule, said he expected the Ryugu samples to be similar to the meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison in Victoria more than 50 years ago.
“The Murchison meteorite opened a window on the origin of organics on Earth because these rocks were found to contain simple amino acids as well as abundant water,” Dr Ireland said.
“We will examine whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system was forming, and whether these still remain intact on the asteroid.”
The spacecraft spent more than a year on the asteroid, where it picked up about a gram of space dirt.
“One gram may sound small for some of you, but for experts 1 gram is enough to address the science questions we’re hoping to find,” Professor Masaki Fugimoto of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.
Five antennas, four marine radar stations and a winged drone were in place to help scientists track the capsule down.
For Hayabusa2, it is not the end of the mission it started in 2014.
It is now heading to a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years one way, for possible research including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.