TOKYO (AP) – Officials at the Japanese space agency said on Tuesday they have found more than expected amount of soil and gases in a small capsule that the country’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft took from a distant asteroid this month, a mission they praised as a milestone in planetary research.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said staff initially saw some black particles on the bottom of the capsule’s sample collector when they pulled the container out on Monday. On Tuesday, scientists found more of the soil and gas samples in a compartment that contained those from the first of Hayabusa’s two landings on the asteroid last year.
“We have confirmed that a good amount of sand has apparently been collected from the asteroid Ryugu, along with gases,” said JAXA Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda in a video message during an online press conference. “The monsters from outside our planet, which we have long dreamed of, are now in our hands.”
Tsuda called the successful return of the asteroid soil and gas samples “an important scientific milestone.”
The pan-shaped capsule, 40 centimeters (15 inches) in diameter, was dropped from space by Hayabusa2 on December 6 to a predetermined spot in a sparsely populated Australian desert at the end of its six-year journey to Ryugu, more than 300 million kilometers. (190 million miles) from Earth.
The capsule arrived in Japan on Tuesday for research that scientists hope will provide insight into the origins of the solar system and life on Earth.
Hirotaka Sawada, a JAXA scientist, was the first to look inside the capsule’s sample catcher. Sawada said he was “nearly speechless” with joy to discover that the samples inside contained some samples that were, as expected, dust-sized, but also some as large as pebbles.
Soil samples in photos shown in Tuesday’s presentation looked like heaps of dark coffee grounds mixed with grains.
Sawada said the tightly sealed capsule has successfully returned asteroid gases that are markedly different from Earth’s air – a first sample return of gases from space. Kyushu University scientist Ryuji Okazaki said gases could be related to minerals in asteroid floor and he hopes to identify the gaseous samples and determine their age.
Scientists hope that samples from the asteroid’s subsurface can provide information from billions of years ago that is unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. JAXA scientists say they are particularly interested in organic materials in the samples to find out how they were distributed in the solar system and whether they are related to life on Earth.
Sei-ichiro Watanabe, a Nagoya University earth and environmental scientist who works with JAXA, said having more sample material to work with than expected is great news as it will expand the scope of the studies.
The samples were collected from two touchdowns Hayabusa2 made on Ryugu last year. The landings were more difficult than expected due to the asteroid’s extremely rocky surface.
The first landing collected samples from the surface of Ryugu and the second from underground. Each was saved separately. JAXA said it will look into another compartment next week, which will be used for a second touchdown, and will continue an initial investigation ahead of subsequent studies of the material.
Following studies in Japan, some samples will be shared with NASA and other international space agencies from 2022 onwards for additional research.
Hayabusa2, meanwhile, is on an 11-year expedition to another asteroid to try to study possible defenses against meteorites that could fly to Earth.