Japan's space agency shows off samples collected from asteroid Ryugu

The agency also confirmed it gathered the first gas samples from deep space.


Japan’s space agency JAXA has opened the space probe Hayabusa2’s recently-returned sample capsule and found that the mission did succeed in collecting material from the asteroid Ryugu. It also confirmed that a gas sample inside the collector “differed from the atmospheric composition of the Earth,” confirming that it also came from the squarish asteroid.

Hayabusa2 spent 16 months in 2018 and 2019 following Ryugu, making two touchdowns on the surface to collect rocks and dust. It stored those in a “tamatebako” or “treasure box” sample capsule, which it dropped off to Earth before heading to other asteroids.

That capsule landed in the Australian outback on December 6th, and JAXA scientists quickly moved it to a pop-up laboratory in Australia called the “Quick Look Facility,” or QLF. Scientists soon confirmed they had captured gases, but the probe required further testing to confirm they were of extraterrestrial origin. Yesterday, the team confirmed that the gas sample matched the original analysis, confirming the first-ever gases captured from deep space.

At the same time, JAXA showed material captured from the surface of the asteroid in the form of dark debris and small rocks. They were found in the “A” sample chamber, so JAXA believes they were collected and stored during the first of two touchdowns. The second touchdown should have kicked up samples that would be stored in chamber “C.” Earlier, the agency confirmed the presence of grains of “black sand” thought to be from Ryugu, that attached just outside the main chambers.

After opening all the chambers to weigh and confirm the materials, JAXA will begin to asses the samples using microscopes and infrared spectra analysis. We should learn more about the composition by early 2021, and by the end of 2021, JAXA will begin sharing samples with NASA and other agencies.

So far, JAXA estimates that it collected 1 to 2 grams of material, or 10 to 20 times more than the 100 milligrams it was hoping for. If accurate, it would be the largest asteroid sample ever collected directly from space, by far. The only other extraterrestrial asteroid sample also came from Japan via the Hayabusa1 mission, which gathered just 1 milligram of material.

It also means that unlike asteroid chunks that fall to Earth, the Hayabusa2 samples are free from terrestrial contamination. Scientists are hoping that the materials, essentially artifacts of our ancient solar system, will provide clues into how the Earth — and even life — initially formed.