Following a six-year space operation, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) finally oversaw the re-entry of its Hayabusa-2 probe into Earth's atmosphere.
The probe safely landed on Earth and its payload of an approximately 100 milligram-sample of the asteroid Ryugu is in "perfect shape" JAXA researchers said, as per the BBC.
The Ryugu sample's Earth impact
JAXA's Hayabusa-2 capsule parachuted down near Woomera in South Australia on Saturday, carrying with it a sample of asteroid Ryugu from approximately 186 million miles (300 million kilometers) away from Earth.
"Hayabusa-2 is home," Dr Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for the mission, said at a press conference on Sunday, in Sagamihara, Japan, reports the BBC.
Capsule collection! The helicopter team immediately flew to the location identified by the DFS team. They searched for the fallen capsule by using radio waves and maps. Thank you very much!— HAYABUSA2@JAXA (@haya2e_jaxa) December 6, 2020
(Collection Team M)#Hayabusa2#はやぶさ２#AsteroidExplorerHayabusa2 #HAYA2Report pic.twitter.com/KSyEbnU3Yd
"We collected the treasure box," he said, adding: "The capsule collection was perfectly done."
A recovery team in Australia searched the capsule's landing site and found the safely-stored sample lying on the ground with its parachute sprawled over a nearby bush.
The Hayabusa-2 spacecraft spent more than a year investigating Ryugu before returning to Earth, jettisoning its sample capsule and firing its engines to change direction so as to avoid re-entry alongside the sample.
Weighing approximately 35 lbs (16 kg), the capsule carrying the Ryugu asteroid chunk is the largest sample to have been recovered from an asteroid.
Traveling at a blistering 24,606 miles per hour (11 km/s), the capsule deployed parachutes in order to slow its descent. Once it had landed, the capsule began transmitting a location beacon, allowing the recovery team to find its exact landing spot.
The sample-carrying capsule was photographed on Saturday as a striking fireball flying over Australia's Coober Pedy region.
Hayabusa-2, future JAXA missions
After the sample was collected, it was sent to a facility in Australia for initial tests, including gas tests taken from inside the capsule.
The capsule is now scheduled to be airlifted to Japan, where it will be transported to a curation chamber at Jaxa in Sagamihara for rigorous analysis and safe storage.
"We started the development of Hayabusa-2 in 2011. I think the dream has come true." said Hitoshi Kuninaka, director general of Japan's Institute for Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS).
"We did everything according to the schedule — 100%. And we succeeded in sample return as planned. As a result, we can move on to the next stage in space development," he continued.
The team from JAXA will carry out similar missions in the future, including one called MMX, which aims to bring back samples from Mars' largest moon Phobos.
The Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, meanwhile, avoided re-entry after releasing the Ryugu sample-carrying capsule so it could set off on another mission: it is now traveling to a smaller, 30m-wide asteroid, with arrival scheduled for 2031.
As asteroids and other space debris are essentially leftover building material from the formation of the Solar System, the team at JAXA, and indeed the scientific community as a whole, hope the new Ryugu sample will teach us a great deal about the formation and evolution of planets.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article stated Hayabusa-2's mission was completed. This is misleading, since the probe is on its way to another asteroid for continuing studies, and simply "dropped off" a sample-containing capsule to land in Australia. IE regrets this error.