- Paul Rincon
- BBC News Science Editor
An Australian team located and recovered a space capsule carrying samples of an asteroid.
And it is estimated that they are the first significant quantities of an aerolite that can shed new light on the history of the Solar System.
The capsule, which contains material from the space rock called Ryugu, fell by parachute near Woomera, a desert area in southern Australia.
The samples were collected by the Japanese spacecraft called Hayabusa-2, which spent more than a year investigating the asteroid.
The capsule – or container – separated from Hayabusa-2 before entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Hayabusa-2’s official Twitter account reported that the container and its parachute were found at 19:47 this Saturday (GMT).
Earlier, cameras had captured images of the capsule descending “like a dazzling fireball” over the Australian town of Coober Pedy.
The container deployed its parachute to slow its descent.
At the moment of entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the capsule began to transmit information about its position.
The spacecraft finally landed in Woomera, an area under the control of the Royal Australian Air Force.
When the recovery team identified where the capsule had landed, around 18:07 GMT, a helicopter, equipped with an antenna, was deployed to find the container.
It is now under a “rapid review” protocol before being flown to Japan.
Then the capsule, which has a weight of 16 kilograms, will be transferred to a conservation chamber at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in the city of Sagamihara for analysis and storage.
The Japanese mission sought to collect a sample of more than 100 milligrams from the asteroid Ryugu.
Professor Alan Fitzsimmons, from the Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, explained that the sample is capable of revealing a lot of data “not only about the history of the Solar System, but also about these particular objects.”
Asteroids are essentially building blocks left over from the formation of the Solar system.
They are made of the same material that planets like Earth were made of.
“Having samples of an asteroid like Ryugu will be really exciting for our field. We think Ryugu is made up of super old rocks that will tell us how the Solar System formed,” said Professor Sara Russell, a researcher in the Planetary Materials group at the Museum of Natural History London, to the BBC.
Studying samples taken from Ryugu could tell us how water and the ingredients for life got to the early Earth.
Comets were long thought to be the transporters of much of the water of the Earth in the early days of the Solar System.
Instead, Professor Fitzsimmons points out that the chemical profile of water in comets was different from the profile of water in our planet’s oceans.
However, the composition of water in some asteroids in the outer Solar System is more similar.
“We may have been looking at comets for the origin of water on Earth during the early Solar System. Perhaps we should have looked a little closer to home, in these primitive but quite rocky asteroids,” the expert tells the BBC.
“In fact, that is something that will be analyzed very carefully in these Ryugu samples,” he concludes.
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