16 December 2020 News

Hayabusa2 delivers first-ever gas sample from an asteroid

A photo showing asteroid grain-sized samples, seen inside a container of the re-entry capsule brought back by Hayabusa2. Image: JAXA
A photo showing asteroid grain-sized samples, seen inside a container of the re-entry capsule brought back by Hayabusa2. Image: JAXA

Following the exciting news that the Hayabusa2 sample-return mission had successfully collected grain-sized material belonging to an ancient relic of the Solar System, the JAXA team have now confirmed that gas collected from the sample container inside the re-entry capsule is also from the Ryugu asteroid.

Last week, on a remote test range in the Australian outback, Japanese scientists eagerly awaited the arrival of a return capsule dispatched from the countries Hayabusa-2 mission as it neared Earth.

To everyones relief, when the capsule was opened two days ago, scientists found rocky particles grabbed by the spacecraft last year after it had blasted craters on the surface of the Ryugu asteroid to dislodge material.

“A large number of particles are confirmed to be in “sample chamber A” inside the collected capsule. This is thought to be the sample from the first touchdown on Ryugu. The photo looks brown, but our team says “black”! The sample return is a great success!” Said the Hayabusa2 team via Twitter at the time.

Shortly after the capsule had been collected, scientists whipped it away to a QLF (Quick Look Facility) at the Woomera Local Headquarters in Australia, to analyse any gas contained in the sample container.

For confirmation, a similar analysis was also performed at the JAXA Sagamihara Campus Extraterrestrial Sample Curation Center a few days later to check for consistency.

Both analyses match up, say the JAXA team. When coupled with finding a container sealed with aluminium as designed – a feature to prevent contamination from Earth’s atmosphere – the team are in no doubt that the gas is from Ryugu.

Along with the first significant sample of material to be delivered to Earth from a space rock, JAXA can now also claim to have the world's first sample return of a material in the gas state from deep space.

So far, these discoveries have come from just one of three chambers inside the capsule. Sample chamber B is thought to be be empty, but chamber C could hold material collected from beneath Ryugu's surface.

“Part of the sample was picked up in Chamber A to be stored in vacuum in its present condition,” say JAXA in a statement. “From here, we will move to chamber CC3-3, remove the samples from chamber A in a nitrogen environment, and open chambers B and C.”

A detailed analysis of both grains and gas is expected in due course.

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