SA is about to have another exciting moment in space exploration history when asteroid samples taken by Japan’s Hayabusa2 land near Woomera.
Samples from a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid collected by a Japanese spacecraft in two extraordinary touchdown manoeuvres are about to land in South Australia’s outback.
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft took fragments from the asteroid Ryugu in February and July last year, and will eject the fragments as it flies past early on Sunday.
The capsule is expected to land near Woomera about 4.30am AEDT, with the Hayabusa2 having travelled 5.25 billion kilometres since it launched.
The fragments date back to the earliest stages of the formation of the solar system and are expected to provide valuable insights about its origin and evolution once analysed.
It will be the first ever sub-surface asteroid sample to return to Earth and may help scientists understand how oceans and life formed here.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said scientists had many examples of meteorites – whose origins are thought to be the same as asteroids – that had fallen to Earth but the material that was left over after re-entry through the atmosphere and their structure, along with volatile substances, had been lost.
“They will also be contaminated with substances from the Earth,” JAXA says.
“On the other hand, samples from the asteroids are brought back to Earth in the same condition as they were in space, with the ‘re-entry capsule’ protecting the sample through the atmosphere and landing.”
Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, chair of the German Aerospace Center DLR, which will assist with sample analysis, said it was a historic moment for space exploration.
After releasing the landing capsule, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft will continue its scientific journey, steering itself towards another near-Earth asteroid that it is expected to reach in 2031.
Woomera was declared a prohibited area in 1947 after the establishment of a long-range weapons testing facility and became a global focal point for space activity from 1957 when the first research rocket Skylark was launched by the British.
At its busiest, Woomera had the second highest number of rocket launches in the world after NASA’s facilities at Cape Canaveral in Florida.