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Japanese Capsule Containing Bits Of An Asteroid Returns To Earth

Updated at 5:05 p.m. ET

A Japanese space capsule ferrying sample material from an asteroid — the bounty from a six-year mission spanning billions of miles — made its triumphant return to Earth this weekend.

The small capsule that had detached from the Hayabusa2 space probe landed in the vicinity of the town of Woomera, in the Australian Outback, early Sunday Japan time. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, which spearheaded the mission, said a helicopter found the capsule in the planned landing area.

"We found the capsule! Together with the parachute! Wow! " JAXA tweeted just after 3 p.m. ET.

Inside the capsule is just a little bit of dust and dirt with potentially grand ramifications. It comes from Ryugu, a jet black asteroid roughly one mile wide, which orbits the sun between Earth and Mars, roughly 180 million miles from our planet.

Researchers expect the sample to contain organic matter similar to the early space rocks that combined to make planets, which, with careful study, may offer a glimpse of the mysterious processes that turned the universe into what it is today. In other words, JAXA explains, scientists hope that by examining the sample, they may "approach the secrets of the birth of the solar system and the birth of life."

Scientists have studied the composition of asteroids before. But usually the material they're looking at has been radically changed by its arrival on Earth, after the rocks are burned up by atmospheric entry and tainted by other matter it touches after landing. This sample, taken directly from the asteroid and protected by the capsule, should offer scientists a more accurate view of the organic matter in its natural state.

JAXA crew members set up antennas last month in Woomera, South Australia. The setup is meant to help researchers locate a proverbial needle in a haystack after the sample lands.
/ JAXA via AP
JAXA crew members set up antennas last month in Woomera, South Australia. The setup is meant to help researchers locate a proverbial needle in a haystack after the sample lands.

Still, it has been no easy feat to return the sample to Earth, and certainly not to obtain it in the first place.

After its launch in late 2014, JAXA's Hayabusa2 spacecraft spent 3 1/2 years getting into position by orbiting the sun. After its arrival at Ryugu in 2018, the craft first sent a lander to the surface before making two trips of its own to collect material. Before its second visit to Ryugu's surface in 2019, Hayabusa2 prepared a crater for itself with plastic explosives.

On its return trip, the capsule containing the sample separated from Hayabusa2 more than 130,000 miles from Earth — a distance that would get you more than halfway from your home to the moon.

JAXA took little chance in recovering the 16-inch diameter capsule. The search operations involved at least five antennas, a helicopter and the support of the Australian space agency and military.

The specimens, which are estimated to weigh 1 gram in total, include the world's first subsurface asteroid sample. Scientists hope the primordial materials will help further research into the origin of life on Earth and the evolution of the solar system.

Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director-general of JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, told reporters on Friday local time that researchers will move quickly to get the capsule, once located, over to an Australian Department of Defense facility for inspection.

"We don't want to miss anything," he said at a briefing, according to a translation by Japanese media, "so as soon as the capsule is back to the headquarter building we can extract the gas sample so the best science can be obtained from the precious sample we are returning from asteroid Ryugu."

This will not be the end of the line for Hayabusa2, however. The spacecraft will not follow the capsule back to Earth but rather continue on to another asteroid traveling between Earth and Mars, which it is expected to reach by 2031.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.