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Hayabusa2 capsule returns to Japan, asteroid samples may help understanding of life's origins

(Xinhua)    09:44, December 09, 2020

TOKYO, Dec. 8 (Xinhua) -- A capsule from the Hayabusa2 space probe possibly containing samples from an asteroid it landed on has been transported to Japan, the national aerospace and space agency (JAXA) said here Tuesday.

According to the space agency, the probe was collected from the Australian desert two days earlier and carefully transported to Japan in a metal container.

The probe's payload of samples from the asteroid may help scientists understand the origins of life as the samples collected are thought to contain water and other materials that could possibly support life, according to JAXA.

Early in the morning, a chartered jet landed landed at Tokyo's Haneda airport and JAXA said a truck then carried the capsule to its Sagamihara Campus in Kanagawa Prefecture next to Tokyo.

JAXA Vice President Hitoshi Kuninaka told a press conference "the samples are now in a safe environment," once the capsule was safely in the space agency's facility before noon local time, where many involved in the highly technical and lengthy project were waiting.

"We would like to conduct a thorough analysis," Kuninaka added.

Regarding the potential samples of rocks, soil and trapped gasses collected from the Ryugu asteroid some 300 million kilometers away from Earth during the mission which took six years, they are being stored in a sealed vessel within the capsule.

In order to prevent any contamination of the contents of the vessel, JAXA will open the capsule in a vacuum at a special facility, although officials said that analysis of the samples, which could help scientists understand the origins of life, may not begin until June.

"What had been on another world is now in front of our eyes. It's like a dream," the Hayabusa2 project manager, Yuichi Tsuda, said at the briefing.

The Hayabusa2 space probe, launched in December 2014 arrived above the asteroid in June 2018.

In the February following, Hayabusa2 successfully made its first landing on Ryugu and collected rock samples, JAXA said at the time.

The initial touchdown on the asteroid had to be postponed for a while as JAXA found the surface of the asteroid, which at the time was 900 meters in diameter, to be rockier than it first thought and needed more time to ensure the safe landing of the probe.

The agency, however, was able to locate a flat area near Ryugu's equator that was free of rocks larger than 60 centimeters.

The scientists, according to JAXA, successfully landed the probe on a far smaller landing area than originally planned.

During its mission Hayabusa2, prior to its touchdown on the asteroid, released a small-sized Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout, also known as MASCOT, jointly developed by the German and French space agencies, which touched down successfully on the asteroid.

Two small robotic rovers were also launched from Hayabusa2 and successfully landed on Ryugu, JAXA confirmed.

The rovers took images of the asteroid and performed other functions such as measuring its surface temperature.

JAXA said the images of Ryugu captured by the robots initially revealed a cluster of bumpy rocks and a lack of flat surfaces for the main probe to land on.

The 600-kg Hayabusa2 was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan on December 2014 and it experienced no major problems throughout its journey.

The agency said that in total, Hayabusa2 was scheduled to make three landings on the asteroid and collect soil, rock and gas samples and would stay close to Ryugu for one and a half years.

Hayabusa2 returning to earth and the capsule possibly containing samples of soil, rocks and gas it has collected from Ryugu now sees its mission completed.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Wen Ying, Liang Jun)

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