After a space trip of more than 3 million miles, a capsule released by the Japanese space probe Hayabusa 2, containing the first eagerly awaited samples from below the surface of an asteroid, has landed on Earth.
“We found the capsule! Together with the parachute! Wow!” read a Sunday tweet from the Japanese space agency Jaxa after a helicopter team found it in the Woomera desert of Australia.
The capsule successfully detached from the probe at a distance of 136,000 miles above the Earth as it began its return, Jaxa said.
The capsule will not be opened in Australia, but is to be brought to Japan for analysis starting in June.
The probe had collected samples from the surface of the asteroid Ryugu and, for the first time, from an area below the surface of an asteroid.
Researchers hope to analyze the samples, and have noted that it is a carbon-intensive asteroid. Past studies of it indicated the possible presence of water or contain organic material, such as amino acids, Yoshikawa said.
The spectacular landing maneuver marks the end of a mission that began in December 2014 with the launch of the Hayabusa 2 from Japan.
Hayabusa 2 is now due to set off for another near-Earth asteroid, which it should reach in around 10 years.
A predecessor model of Hayabusa 2 brought soil samples from an asteroid to Earth for the first time in 2010.
The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) also took part in the project, with the Mascot lander developed in cooperation with the French space agency CNES.
“This is a historic moment for space research,” said Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, chief executive of the DLR.
Japan’s Jaxa space agency plans to make some of the samples available to NASA and, in 2022, to researchers in other countries. The DLR is also planning investigations.