The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has been working on its Hayabusa2 mission for a long time. Late last month, we mentioned that the spacecraft was nearing home and preparing to drop off its samples from on and under the surface of an asteroid called Ryugu. Today is the day samples will be returned.
JAXA says the samples will be returned to Earth between 11:30 AM and 12:30 PM ET today, Saturday, December 5. The latest time for the return window is 1:30 PM ET. That works out to about 3:30 AM to 4:30 AM Australian time on Sunday.
The space agency says that the container holding the samples will land on Earth about 15 minutes after it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Hayabusa2’s asteroid samples will land in the Australian outback and will cause a fireball across the early morning sky. Hayabusa2 has been conducting business for over half a decade after launching on December 3, 2014. It spent years getting to the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu arriving in orbit in June 2018.
The spacecraft collected samples from the surface of the asteroid on February 22, 2019. Hayabusa2 fired a copper projectile into the surface, creating a 33-foot wide impact crater to collect samples from under the asteroid’s surface. The sample was collected from the crater on July 11, 2019.
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid in November 2019, and as previously mentioned, the samples will return to Earth today. Controllers of the mission believe they have recovered about one gram of material, but they have no way to know until the container is opened. Tensions are certainly high until that container is opened. Japan sent the original Hayabusa mission to an asteroid that returned samples to Earth in June 2010, but the sampling device had failed, and only micrograms of dust from the asteroid were collected.