Japan’s Hayabusa2 Mission Brings Home Samples of Asteroid Dirt and Gas

Inside the sample collection chamber are materials collected from asteroid Ryugu by Hayabusa 2. Credit: JAXA.

The Hayabusa2 mission led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has successfully returned materials from the asteroid Ryugu to Earth. Ryugu is a near-Earth asteroid of primitive carbonaceous chondrite-like composition. We have many carbonaceous chondrites from unidentified parent bodies in our meteorite collections, but this is the first-ever carbonaceous sample returned from an asteroid by spacecraft. Carbonaceous chondrites are rich in organic and volatile compounds and may have been responsible for delivering water and the ingredients of life to early Earth.

The Hayabusa2 mission was launched on December 3, 2014, arrived at Ryugu in 2018, and surveyed the asteroid for over 16 months. The spacecraft made two successful touch-and-go landings on Ryugu on February 21 and July 10, 2019, to collect its samples. After a six-year-long journey by Hayabusa2 spanning more than 5 billion kilometers, the samples were returned to Earth on December 5. The Hayabusa2 spacecraft is planned to continue its exploration with an extended mission that will allow it to fly by and rendezvous with two additional near-Earth asteroids over the next decade.

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft released its 16-inch (40-centimeter) sample return capsule for re-entry as it flew by Earth. The capsule landed via parachute in Woomera, Australia, where Japanese teams were in position to recover the capsule. Scientists at JAXA first opened sample chamber A that contains a small pile of black pebbles collected during the first surface sampling operation. Chamber B is expected to be empty. Chamber C contains sub-surface materials collected during the second touch-and-go maneuver after Hayabusa2 intentionally created a small impact crater. The Hayabusa2 team also analyzed gas sealed inside the return capsule. These gas molecules are suspected to have come from outgassing by the collected samples (rather than terrestrial contamination) and may be the first gaseous sample returned from deep space. The returned samples will be curated and analyzed by an international team of scientists as they contain clues about the origin and evolution of asteroids like Ryugu and organic- and volatile-rich materials in the early solar system. READ MORE