Japan’s space agency (JAXA) believes it has successfully collected the first-ever subsurface samples from an asteroid.
The update came via Kyodo News at shortly before 8 p.m. PT on Wednesday, just 90 minutes after JAXA’s Hayabusa2 satellite made its second landing on the Ryugu asteroid some 200 million miles from Earth, five months after the first. Confirmation of the collection is expected to be given during a press conference at around 10 p.m. PT.
The subsurface rock samples were loosened in April by a small explosive fired by Hayabusa2 from a height of about 1,500 feet.
The plan is to get the material back to Earth next year, with analysis potentially offering scientists new insight into the history of the solar system and the origins of life.
[PPTD] July 11 at 10:51 JST: Gate 5 check. The state of the spacecraft is normal and the touchdown sequence was performed as scheduled. Project Manager Tsuda has declared that the 2nd touchdown was a success!
— HAYABUSA2@JAXA (@haya2e_jaxa) July 11, 2019
During the satellite’s first landing on the 1-kilometer-wide space rock in February, Hayabusa2 successfully collected samples of material from its surface, which, should the mission continue to proceed without any major issues, will be brought to Earth with the material collected on Wednesday.
Ryugu is cateogrized as a primitive carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid, a type that scientists believe may preserve the most pristine materials in the solar system, including various minerals, organic compounds, and ice. It means that the samples from the asteroid could offer new clues as to the origin and evolution of the inner planets, and plenty more besides.
Hayabusa2 reached Ryugu in June 2018 after a journey of three-and-a-half years. Since then it’s been staying close to the asteroid, tracking it as it moves through space at great speed.
It’s also been carrying out various exploratory activities, and in September 2018 successfully deployed two rovers onto the asteroid. The rovers have been capturing close-up images of their surroundings, and carrying out tasks that include taking temperature readings of the rock’s surface.
The mission has garnered plenty of attention from around the world. Among its fans is Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May, who, shortly before Hayabusa2’s debut landing, popped up in JAXA’s live video feed to wish the team “absolutely the best of luck in this incredibly delicate maneuver,” adding, “My heart is with you … we love you Hayabusa2.” May followed up with another video on Wednesday wishing the team luck with its second landing.