After travelling over 5 billion kilometres on a six year round trip, a Japanese spacecraft named Hayabusa 2 has completed its mission, potentially bringing us closer to unlocking more secrets of our solar system.
In late 2014, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) sent a probe to a near-Earth asteroid named Ryugu. This is the first mission to collect samples from underneath the surface of an asteroid.
To reach below the surface, Hayabusa 2 essentially bombed the asteroid using an explosive copper projectile, blowing a hole in it and exposing the pristine rocks that have been untouched by cosmic radiation.
Looking at the photos taken by the spacecraft, scientists were able to confirm the age of the asteroid – a mere 9 million years old. Despite this being older than human civilisation itself, it’s still a fairly young age for asteroids, many of which can be dated back billions of years.
“By looking at the surface rocks and then looking at the interior rocks, it’ll really give [scientists] an understanding of how the space environment changes rocks over time,” says Kerri Donaldson Hanna, a planetary geologist at the University of Central Florida. “These rocks are going to be really new to us and different from anything in our collection of meteorites.”
JAXA says that they are hoping these samples could provide clues to the origin of the solar system, as well as life on Earth.
On the 6th of December, 2020 – almost exactly six years after its launch – Hayabusa 2 completed its mission and dropped the capsule containing the samples down to Earth. It landed in the South Australian outback, and was quickly located by helicopter.
The capsule has been believed to contain only one gram of material, but according to the scientists that will be conducting research on it, one gram is enough to answer all the questions being asked about it.
While the samples here on Earth are being processed in a lab, Hayabusa 2 continues flying on to another asteroid by the name of 1998KY26. The spacecraft is estimated to reach its destination in 2031 to conduct research that may assist in preventing meteorite strikes.