The December 2020 Hayabusa2 asteroid capsule landing in Australia
More info i
Credit: Morgan Sette/AFP via Getty Images

Japan brought back a piece of an asteroid, and it came down as a fireball in Australia

Contributed by
Dec 7, 2020, 5:10 PM EST

Japan’s JAXA space agency sure could have used Crocodile Dundee this weekend. After waiting six years for Earth’s first-ever sampling of the material that lies beneath the surface of an asteroid, the return capsule carrying the tiny sample from Japan’s Hayabusa2 explorer ended up coming to rest in a remote stretch of the Australian Outback — nearly 300 miles from Adelaide, the closest major city.

Completing a mission that began with the explorer’s liftoff all the way back on Dec. 3, 2014, the capsule fireballed Down Under in the dead of night early Sunday morning, with a recovery team locating the far-flung landing site via an onboard radio beacon shortly before 3 a.m. local time. Inside the air-sealed container is a tiny, yet-to-be-determined amount of extraterrestrial matter that researchers hope could hold the answers to some of the cosmos’ oldest origin questions.

Amazingly, astronauts aboard the ISS caught a glimpse of the capsule as it made its dive toward the Australian desert — though JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who’s currently aboard the ISS, tweeted that it was too small to reflect enough light for a proper photo:

Hayabusa2 collected a surface sample from the near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu in February of last year, followed that same July by a subsurface sample, taken after the craft first managed to shoot a copper “bullet” into the asteroid’s surface — in the process creating a 33 foot-wide impact crater, according to CNN. Once JAXA picked up the capsule on Sunday, scientists transferred it to a protective box and whisked it off to a nearby, temporary “clean room” site — all to ensure as little Earthbound air comes into contact with whatever’s inside.

We’re talking tiny amounts of asteroid material here — perhaps a gram or less. But, via The New York Times, JAXA’s Masaki Fujimoto says that’s plenty…if, that is, last year’s collection sweep was indeed a success. "One gram may sound small, but for us, one gram is huge," said Fujimoto. “It is enough to address our science questions.”

While the capsule itself ended its journey with this weekend’s fiery Australian descent, Hayabusa2 still has more to do out there. CNN also reports that, between 2026 and 2031, it’s slated to conduct flybys of three asteroids, ending with the first-ever observation pass of a rapidly rotating, spherical near-Earth micro-asteroid — a rendezvous with astroid 1998 KY26 in July of 2031.

JAXA tweeted on Monday that the 162173 Ryugu sample already had left Australia via airplane and was safely on its way to Japan, keeping its secrets until the Hayabusa2 team can crack open the capsule and begin researching its gaseous and solid contents in earnest. Among other things, according to NYT, they’re hoping to discover clues about whether water (including the water in Earth’s oceans) could have originated with asteroids, as well as whether such far-flung, comparatively small celestial objects also harbor carbon-based molecules that form the basis for organic life.