Asteroid dust collected by Japan probe arrives on Earth

TOKYO (AFP) – In a streak of light across the night sky, samples collected from a distant asteroid arrived on Earth yesterday after being dropped off by Japanese space probe Hayabusa-2.

Scientists hope the precious samples, which are expected to amount to no more than 0.1 grammes of material, could help shed light on the origin of life and the formation of the universe.

The capsule carrying samples entered the atmosphere just before 2.30am Japan time creating a shooting-star-like fireball as it entered Earth’s atmosphere en route to a landing site in Australia.

“Six years and it has finally come back to Earth,” an official narrating a live broadcast of the arrival said, as images showed officials from Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) cheering and pumping their fists in excitement.

A few hours later, JAXA confirmed the samples had been recovered, with help from beacons emitted by the capsule as it plummeted to Earth after separating from Hayabusa-2 on Saturday, while the fridge-sized probe was some 220,000 kilometres away.

A member of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency retrieves a capsule dropped by Hayabusa-2 in Woomera, southern Australia. PHOTO: AP

“We found the capsule! Together with the parachute! Wow!” the mission’s Twitter account announced.

People who had gathered at a public viewing site near JAXA’s office in suburban Tokyo – despite the event taking place a few hours after midnight – also erupted with cheers.

“I’m extremely happy because the capsule has returned home safely, Hayabusa-2 did a great job,” a primary school boy said.

The capsule was recovered in the southern Australian desert, and will now be in the hands of scientists performing initial, non-invasive analysis including checking for any gas emissions.

It will then be sent to Japan.

The samples were collected by Hayabusa-2, which launched in 2014, from the asteroid Ryugu, some 300 million kilometres from Earth.

The probe collected both surface dust and pristine material from below the surface that was stirred up by firing an “impactor” into the asteroid.

The material is believed to be unchanged since the time the universe was formed.

Larger celestial bodies like Earth went through radical changes including heating and solidifying, changing the composition of the materials on their surface and below.