3 mins read 14 Jul 2020

Asteroid Sample Return set for 6 December

Space Agencies announce 6 December 2020 as the return date of the JAXA Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample mission, expected to land in Woomera, South Australia.

Credit: NASA.

The Australian Space Agency, and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), have announced 6 December 2020 as the date that the Hayabusa-2 sample from the Asteroid Ryugu will arrive at Earth, landing in the Woomera region of South Australia.

Both agencies are currently working towards the planned safe re-entry and recovery of the precious capsule, which has been traversing across the Solar System since December 2019. If successful, it will be the fourth sample return mission to Earth from space.

As part of this collaboration, both agencies are working through JAXA’s application for Authorisation of Return or Overseas Launched Space Object (AROLSO) – requiring approval under the Australian Space Activities Act (1988). The Australian Space Agency will coordinate the licensing requirements, whilst the Department of Defence will provide support and access to the remote landing location. The Defence Science and Technology Group is also working closely with JAXA on scientific activities.

Head of the Australian Space Agency, Dr. Megan Clark AC commented on the responsibility for authorising Australian space activities.

‘The successful return of Hayabusa in 2010 is a great example of achieving shared ambition with international counterparts through partnership. This activity again highlights the role Australia can play in the growing space economy. We look forward to working with JAXA, and encouraging entrepreneurship while ensuring our activities are safe, in space, and on Earth,’ said Dr Clark.

Hayabusa-2, was launched in December 2014 from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center, setting off on its 3.5 year voyage which spanned nearly 3.2 billion kilometres (over 8,000 times the average distance from Earth to the Moon). The explorer finally reached Ryugu asteroid on 27 June 2018.

Upon rendezvous with the near-Earth asteroid, Ryugu, the spacecraft commenced utilising its remote sensing technology in-situ, deployed four small rovers, and collected samples from its 1.5 year-long survey. This has resulted in the Hayabusa-2 already starting to produce results that continue to surprise planetary scientists about its origin, migration, and evolution of the Asteroid, since the birth of the Solar System.

The returning capsule itself is approximately 40 cm in diameter and 20 cm in height, hosting a total net mass of about 16 kg. Upon Earth flyby later this year, in December, the capsule will be released and will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at 12 km/s before slowing down to deploy its parachutes at an altitude of 10 km above the Woomera test range.

The precious cargo – volatile samples and substances – will remain in sealed containers before being transported back to JAXA’s Extra-terrestrial Sample Curation Centre, where their contents will be subjected to rigorous testing by international scientists – helping answer mysterious about the early Solar System.

The Asteroid Ryugu is considered to be a potentially hazardous asteroid for Earth, measuring approximately one kilometre in diameter and crossing with our planet’s orbit with a minimal orbital intersection distance of 95,400 km as the closest point between the two bodies (roughly 20% of the distance between the Earth and the Moon). However its orbit is inclined and eccentric, so current risks for impacts are deemed as low.

The Hayabusa-2 follows its predecessor, JAXA’s first Hayabusa spacecraft - which in June 2010 returned a very small sample from the Asteroid Itokawa. At the time, the capsule entered Earth’s atmosphere on a ballistic trajectory, experiencing deceleration of about 25 G and heating rates approximately 30 times those experienced by the returning Apollo spacecraft.

That capsule also landed in Woomera, with JAXA and the Australian Government collaborating in entry, decent, landing, and recovery.