The Hayabusa 2 return capsule landed at the Australian Woomera Range Complex military area. It delivered samples from the Ryugu asteroid, which the Japanese probe has been studying at close proximity for over a year. The aim of the Japanese mission was to return about 100 milligrams of asteroid surface samples.

Second mission of the Peregrine Falcon

Hayabusa 2 spacecraft render / JAXA
Hayabusa 2 spacecraft render / JAXA

Hayabusa 2 is Japan’s most ambitious Solar System exploration mission to date. It is based on experience gathered during the first Hayabusa mission (meaning Peregrine Falcon). That flight, despite the enormous technical difficulties, manager to bring back samples from the Itokawa asteroid. The aim of the second mission was also to return samples from a small Solar System body. This time an asteroid named 1999 JU3 was chosen. Later it was renamed Ryugu.

The mission of the second Peregrine Falcon began in December 2014. Equipped with an innovative ion engine, the spacecraft reached its destination after three and a half years of flight. Hayabusa 2 studied asteroid Ryugu up-close from June 2018 to November 2019. The mission was supported by three tiny MINERVA-II rovers and a German MASCOT vehicle, „bouncing” on the asteroid surface in very low gravity conditions.

Ryugu’s surface as seen from the MASCOT lander / DLR
Ryugu’s surface as seen from the MASCOT lander / DLR

Return of the samples

The samples gathered by the spacecraft were placed in a special return capsule. It is a small container 40 cm wide weighing approximately 16 kg. Since the return capsule does not have its own maneuvering capabilities, it was necessary to very accurately release it from the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft. This happened 220 kilometers above Earth as the main spacecraft passed our planet.

The sample holding return capsule had to withstand enormous temperatures during atmospheric entry at a speed of 12 kilometers per second. It released a parachute at an altitude of 10 kilometers and then it slowly touched down on the Australian steppes. Overhead, the entire process was monitored from space by the departing Hayabusa 2 spacecraft.

The radio transmitter on the return capsule enabled a quick recovery. The sample container survived an exceptionally long journey of 5.3 billion kilometers. Immediately it was transported to Tokyo, where it will be opened under laboratory conditions. Then we will also find out how many samples of Ryugu asteroid have been delivered. So far, specialists from JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency are very optimistic.

The Hayabusa 2 lander was found in the Woomera Military Site / JAXA
The Hayabusa 2 lander was found in the Woomera Military Site / JAXA

New mission for the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft

After completing its main mission, the spacecraft will be directed towards next targets. Two tiny asteroids numbered 1998 KY26 and 2001 CC21 were selected as new destinations. The first object will be observed from close proximity from mid-2031, and a flyby of the second asteroid will be conducted in 2026. You can read more about the future plans for the Hayabusa 2 mission in this article.

Overall, Japanese exploration missions are currently the most advanced in the world. The Japanese were the first ones to bring surface samples from a celestial body other than the Moon. And they’ve done it twice already. For comparison, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu has already collected samples, but will not bring them until 2023. Earlier, in 2022, the Japanese mission DESTINY+ will launch towards asteroid 3200 Phaeton. That mission will reach its destination in 2028.

With further developments of the global space sector, we will observe more and more missions to small Solar System objects. Japan will definitely make a large contribution to this exploration area.