Japan's Hayabusa 2 probe zoomed past Earth on Dec. 5 and dropped a capsule containing samples from an asteroid to end a six-year round trip.
But the mission is far from over: while Hayabusa 2's parachuted test capsule descended into the Australian outback, its mother ship set a new course for an encounter with another asteroid in 2031.
The main goal of Hayabusa 2 was to deliver parts of Ryugu, an asteroid that is currently 11.8 million kilometers from Earth. Mission controllers in Japan cheered and laughed when it was revealed that the capsule had survived its fiery atmospheric re-entry.
Images captured by tracking cameras – and by the International Space Station – showed the capsule sweeping across the sky like a ball of fire as it decelerated from an initial speed of 42,000 kilometers per hour.
Recovery teams set out by land and air to track down the 40 centimeter wide capsule in the Woomera Test Range in South Australia.
The sample is expected to be no more than a few grams, but it is being studied extensively in laboratories in Japan and the United States to gain new knowledge about carbonaceous asteroids – which are believed to have been the raw material for planets and possibly contain the chemical building blocks of life.
The predecessor to Hayabusa 2, the original Hayabusa probe, studied another type of asteroid called Itokawa back in 2005. Hayabusa 1's return voyage was fraught with difficulties, including drive and communication issues that delayed sample delivery until 2010. Approximately 1,500 grains of asteroid dust was recovered.
This time the mission went much smoother. Four years after its launch in 2014, Hayabusa 2 met with Ryugu, sent a series of mini-rovers to the surface to scout, collected bits of rock and dust, and carried out an alien blasting operation at close range.
The probe began its journey home a little over a year ago and did not encounter any problems. Hours before the scheduled delivery, the Hayabusa 2 mother ship released the sample capsule on its target orbit – and then pulled it up to head back into space.
Thanks to this maneuver, Hayabusa 2 is well on its way to meeting with a water-rich asteroid named 1998 KY26 in 2031. This asteroid is much smaller than Ryugu – 30 meters wide, as opposed to 900 meters wide for Ryugu. It also rotates around its axis every 10 minutes.
We don't have to wait eleven years for the next asteroid sample to arrive: NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft picked up up to 2 kilograms of material from the asteroid Bennu in October and is scheduled to drop its sample capsule on a desert test area in Utah during a flyby in 2023.
Main Image: An illustration shows the Hayabusa 2 sample recovery capsule undergoing an atmospheric re-entry while the mothership flies above. Photo credit: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency