Asteroid samples more than expected, Japanese researchers say


Samples of dust collected by a Japanese space probe from an asteroid 300 million kilometers from Earth were better than hoped for, with one researcher saying he was at a loss for words when they opened the capsule.

The samples, the climax of a six-year space odyssey to the Ryugu asteroid by the probe Hayabusa2, arrived in Japan in early December 2020, but researchers did not know whether they had anything until a week later.

“We were aiming for 100 milligrams or more, and we definitely got that,” said Hirotaka Sawada at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), who said he was speechless when he first glimpsed the sample. “I think that next I probably screamed; I don’t really remember,” he told a news conference. “It was really different from what I expected. There was a fair amount.”

Asteroids are believed to have formed at the dawn of the solar system, and scientists have said the sample may contain organic matter that could have contributed to life on Earth. The Hayabusa2, named for the peregrine falcon, orbited Ryugu for a few months before landing, then used small explosives to blast a crater and collected the resulting debris. After dropping off the capsule, it headed back into space.

That capsule plunged to Earth in Australia’s Outback on December 6 and was flown to Japan. The final stage of its journey was by truck to a JAXA research center just outside Tokyo, where it was greeted by a crowd of excited researchers.

After removing and preparing the samples, including weighing them to determine how much was obtained, a process that will take some time, the researchers will begin their deeper analysis.

“We’re absolutely thrilled,” said Sei-ichiro Watanabe, a Nagoya University professor who heads the research team. “There’s so many things we should be able to learn from this.”  Reuters

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