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Japan retrieves space probe that may hold clues to origin of planets

By Reuters | December 6th 2020
In this handout image from Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), a fireball from Hayabusa2's capsule carrying the first extensive samples of an asteroid is seen as it reentered the earth's atmosphere while it is observed at Coober Pedy, Australia, December 6, 2020. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency [JAXA, Handout via Reuters]

Japan has retrieved a space probe from Australia’s remote outback after a six-year mission that may help reveal more about the origins of the planets, the Asian nation’s space agency said on Sunday.

A capsule from the unmanned Hayabusa2, carrying the first extensive samples of dust from an asteroid, was flown by helicopter from the outback to a domestic research facility of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The craft’s mission seeks to answer some fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system and where molecules like water came from.

“This is great,” Yuichi Tsuda, a project manager for the agency, told Japanese broadcaster NHK. “It was a beautiful re-entry. We are all very moved by this.”

The agency will hold a briefing later on Sunday.

The spacecraft, launched from Japan’s Tanegashima space centre in 2014, took four years to reach the asteroid Ryugu before gathering a sample and heading back to Earth in November 2019.

Spectators gathered at a theatre to view the return clapped and waved banners in NHK footage, with one woman in tears. They wore masks and maintained a distance from each other in precautions against the coronavirus.

Asteroids are believed to have formed at the dawn of the solar system, and scientists say the sample may contain organic matter that could have contributed to life on Earth.

“What we are really doing here is trying to sample this pristine rock that has not been irradiated by the sun,” astrophysicist Lisa Harvey-Smith told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Gases trapped in the rock samples could reveal more about conditions that prevailed about 4.6 billion years ago, she added.

Japan’s space probe, named for the peregrine falcon, orbited above the asteroid for a few months to map its surface before landing. Then it used small explosives to blast a crater and collected the resulting debris.

The capsule lit up as it reentered the earth’s atmosphere early on Sunday and landed in the Woomera restricted area, about 460 km (285 miles) north of Adelaide, to be retrieved by scientists and brought to a research station, JAXA said.

“The helicopter carrying the capsule arrived at local headquarters and the capsule was brought inside the building,” the space agency said on Twitter.

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