On December 6 local time (December 5 in the United States), Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 dropped a capsule to the ground of the Australian Outback from about 120 miles (or 200 kilometers) above Earth’s surface.
Inside that capsule is some of the most precious cargo in the solar system: dust that the spacecraft collected earlier this year from the surface of asteroid Ryugu.
By the close of 2021, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, will disperse samples of Ryugu to six teams of scientists around the globe. These researchers will prod, heat, and inspect these ancient grains to learn more about their origins.
A small capsule containing asteroid soil samples that was dropped from 136,700 miles in space by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft landed as planned in the Australian Outback on Sunday, per the AP.
After a preliminary inspection, it will be flown to Japan for research on Tuesday.
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid a year ago. After it released the capsule on Saturday, it set off on a new expedition to another distant asteroid, according to a separate AP story.
Scientists say they believe the samples, especially ones taken from under the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors.
They are particularly interested in organic materials in the samples to find out how they’re distributed in the solar system and related to life on Earth.
JAXA will send some of the samples to NASA (among others), which will have its own asteroid samples in a few years when OSIRIS-REx returns to Earth.
That mission may have collected several kilograms of material from Bennu, so scientists will have plenty of material to conduct experiments.