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JAXA's Asteroid Samples Mark A Major Scientific Milestone

Hayabusa-2's samples include gas, dust, and rock from the Ryugu asteroid.

Japanese space agency JAXA opened the space capsule from Hayabusa-2's recently returned mission to collect samples from the asteroid Ryugu on Monday, and we have a world-first in space exploration.

Not only, did the agency confirm that the mission was a success, it also announced that a gas sample inside the collector "differed from the atmospheric composition of the Earth." This makes it the first gas sample to be collected from deep space.

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Hayabusa-2's Ryugu sample success

Hayabusa-2's mission to Ryugu took just under 6 years to accomplish. During a critical 16 months, between 2018 and 2019, the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft made two touchdowns on the surface of Ryugu to collect rocks, dust, and gas samples.

The craft stored those samples in "tamatebako", or "treasure box", sample capsule, which it dropped off into Earth's atmosphere before propelling off towards another asteroid for more samples.

As we reported last week, the capsule landed in Australia's Coober Pedy region on December 6, where it was quickly retrieved by a recovery team and was found to be in a "perfect state."

After initial tests at a "Quick Look Facility," scientists confirmed they had captured gases. However, more rigorous tests were needed. On Monday (Dec. 14), the JAXA team confirmed that the gas sample matched their original analysis, confirming that they had acquired the first-ever gases captured from deep space. 

JAXA also confirmed and showed sample material captured in the spacecraft's "A" sample chamber, which suggests it was collected during the first of the craft's two touchdowns.

The largest asteroid space sample in history

Once they have opened all of the chambers, JAXA will begin further analysis using microscopes and infrared spectra analysis. As Engadget reports, we should start to learn more about the asteroid's composition as early as the first half of 2021. JAXA is also set to share samples with NASA and other agencies in the coming months.

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As CBC reports, Hirotaka Sawada, a JAXA scientist, was the first to look inside the Hayabusa-2 sample-catcher. Sawada said he was "almost speechless" with joy when he found that some of the samples inside were pebble-sized and much larger than expected.

JAXA estimates that it has collected 1 to 2 grams of material, which is 10 to 20 times more than it was hoping to collect. If this is correct, the Japanese space agency has collected the largest asteroid sample from space in history.

This is unsurprising, as the Hayabusa-2 mission is essentially only competing with itself — the only other asteroid sample taken from space was from the Hayabusa-1 mission, which collected a 1-milligram sample. Nevertheless, this is a stunning achievement that promises to further our knowledge of the cosmos.

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