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Down to Earth: Japanese sample-return capsule to land in South Australia

Space

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 sample-return capsule, which may lead to answers to the origin of life on Earth, will land in Woomera, South Australia on December 6.

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The capsule contains samples collected from primordial asteroid Ryugu, which scientists think may give insight into how Earth became habitable.

The sample-return capsule will be collected from Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA), a desert area commonly used for rocket testing approximately 450 kilometres northwest of Adelaide, South Australia.

Dr Masaki Fujimoto, deputy director general of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said the samples could confirm the theory that Earth was originally very dry due to its proximity to the sun and gained water from other planetary bodies that were born in the outer part of the solar system.

Dr Fujimoto said Ryugu would be similar to these bodies.

“Unless those [bodies] brought water to this planet, our planet would have stayed super dry, like in Woomera. Then we wouldn’t be here today,” said Dr Fujimoto.

Dr Fujimoto expected the samples collected from Ryugu will contain organic matter and possibly water, both “essential materials for the origin of life” on Earth.

He also said observations during Hayabusa2’s rendezvous with Ryugu suggested that the substance of Ryugu’s surface appeared “flaky”.

“It doesn’t look like any rock…it looks very porous. So, our very reasonable expectation is that it’s going to be a material that no one has ever touched before,” Fujimoto said.

“If it had come close to Earth it would have broken into pieces. It would have become ashes, or dust. It wouldn’t remain as an identifiable entity. So, it must be something we haven’t touched before.

“It’s something to be studied for the first time ever.”

Dr Fujimoto said the Hayabusa2 spacecraft will deploy the 40-centimetre diameter capsule in the evening of December 5.

Once the capsule enters the atmosphere above Woomera around 4:00am on December 6, it will be able to be seen as a fireball in the sky for approximately 90 seconds.

Dr Fujimoto said the South Australian town of Cooper Pedy would be the most accessible place for people to see the fireball.

The capsule will deploy a parachute to land safely once it reaches an altitude of 10 kilometres, and a beeping beacon signal will help the JAXA team find its location, which they will confirm from a helicopter.

Graphic: JAXA

A team of approximately five will then drive to the landing spot to retrieve the capsule, escorted by the Australian Department of Defence and Trevor Ireland, professor of planetary science at the Australian National University who will act as the official international witness, while 14 Japanese team members have just finished quarantine in South Australia and are on their way to the site.

The capsule will then be transported to Japan via a chartered flight, where it will be opened and the amount of sample material collected will be confirmed for the first time.

Dr Fujimoto said the sample will undergo testing to prove it is space material and not earth material such as “sand from Woomera”, before being catalogued.

Pre-assigned scientists will then perform detailed analysis to prove the scientific potential and value of the samples.

Dr Fujimoto said Woomera was chosen because the landing site needed to be an easily accessible large, flat, desert-like place where the 40-centimetre diameter capsule could be spotted with ease. WPA was one of a handful of places that fit the criteria, while Australia is in close proximity to Japan, and has previously hosted Japanese space-related activities.

Hayabusa-2 reentry capsule unit and parachute.

The restricted Woomera Range Complex stretches about 500km in length and covers 122,000sq km, an area almost as large as England, and is the largest land-based weapons test facility in the western world.

South Australia is also home to the Australian Space Agency and SmartSat CRC, as well as major Tier 1 defence companies and several emerging space startups, including Fleet Space, Inovor Technologies, Myriota and Southern Launch.

Dr Fujimoto said that during its mission, Hayabusa2 performed two touchdowns and sample collections on Ryugu, but the process was not without challenges.

Hayabusa2 had been designed to be able to land easily on a flat surface of approximately 100 metres diameter, but Ryugu’s surface turned out to be rougher than expected. The Hayabusa2 team then had to devise new technology that improved the spacecraft’s landing precision so that it could land on the available flat surface of 10 metres diameter.

The team fixed the issue within half a year, and Hayabusa2 proceeded to collect a sample first from the primordial asteroid’s surface, then from its subsurface following the creation of an artificial crater.

Another possible challenge facing the Hayabusa2 team is the unpredictable weather of the South Australian early summer season.

JAXA’s 72-member retrieval team witnessed the unstable weather firsthand via a sudden thunderstorm while undergoing mandatory 14-day quarantine in Adelaide, which followed a self-imposed 21-day quarantine in Japan.

Dr Fujimoto said windy conditions could “degrade” the precision of the prediction of the capsule’s landing site. In the worst-case scenario, if lightning strikes the capsule after it has landed, the beacon beeping signal may be disabled meaning the search for the small capsule would be done by sight alone.

“It’s a high-tech space mission, we did everything, and then at the last minute you have to worry about the weather and the wind!”

However, Dr Fujimoto is confident the retrieval mission will go well given the success of the first Hayabusa retrieval mission conducted in Woomera in 2010.

Cooperation between Australia and Japan in space will also be discussed at the 10th Australian Space Forum being held online on 25 November from Adelaide, with Akira Kosaka, manager of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) international relations division, being a keynote speaker.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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