A peregrine (Hayabusa is named after the falcon) flew 3.25 billion miles from Earth to explore asteroid Ryugu and carry back a certain treasure box that may open the secrets of the Solar System and the origins of Earth.
Leaving Earth in December 2014, Hayabusa2 first explored Ryugu from orbit, then scraped the surface to comb some samples, and finally sent small explosives into the asteroid’s rocky surface to blast a crater, collecting sub-surface samples. The precious pieces of debris were deposited into a capsule: that’s the treasure box. In December 2020, Hayabusa2 swooped over Woomera, South Australia, dropped the treasure box capsule, and proclaimed “I’m home.”
After six years, it’s now a rush job to get the capsule back to JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) before any Earth air might leak in, because “There is no perfect sealing,” according to Dr. ShigoTachibana, principal investigator. First stop on the way home? A field lab on an Australian Airforce Base, reached via helicopter from capsule touchdown site. There, a special instrument extracts from the capsule any gases that may have been shaken out of the rock bits by the jarring flight and landing. Then, the treasure box continues via jet plane to JAXA’s lab. Eventually, samples will be shared around the scientific world.
Why all this interest in asteroids? They’re not even mentioned in the Outer Space Treaty. Asteroids are relics from billions of years ago – same time Earth was being formed. Asteroids are bits that didn’t latch onto any planet but instead just continued to spin out into space. There are millions of asteroids in a belt between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroids like Ryugu could tell us how life on Earth began, and how the Solar System evolved. Some asteroids may have commercial value: one is thought to contain platinum, worth $50 billion.
JAXA’s not the only rock hound in space. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx explored and sampled asteroid Bennu recently; those samples will arrive in 2023. Scientists from both Bennu and Ryugu teams plan to meet, compare findings, and share samples. Other scientists around the world will participate: “Different labs contribute different expertise, which all helps in understanding the material collected and what that tells us about the formation and evolution of the Solar System,” stated Dr. Sarah Crowther of Manchester University. Professor Sara Russell, of the planetary materials group at London’s Natural History Museum, commented: “We think that this asteroid may have organic material and water which can give us information about how these things were delivered to the early Earth.” (Rincon, 2020) Hayabusa2 is not finished: after coming within 125 miles of Earth to drop the capsule, the peregrine flew towards its next destination – 1998 KY26, an asteroid discovered in 1998 and so tiny it completes a rotation day every 10.7 minutes. While mainly a fly-by, KY26 may yet yield treasure: the falcon kept one probe, just in case. For a video of Hayabusa2 and the mission, watch here.
Flying a robotic intelligent vessel billions of miles, taking measurements and readings and tiny precise samples from far away rotating celestial locations, may be a mythic feat. Mythic feats deserve mythic names. Ryūgū-jō is the palace of Ryūjin, dragon king of the deep sea. In the Japanese myth of Urashina Tarō, a human fisher rescues a turtle, who gives the rescuer magic gills, and brings the fisher to the Ryūgū-jō. The turtle then transforms into a princess. Princess Otohime gives Tarō a tamatebako or “treasure box” upon the human’s return to Earth. In this space odyssey re-enactment, asteroid Ryugu is the palace, and we’re about to find out what’s in that treasure box.
Chang, Kenneth. “Japans’s Journey to an Asteroid Ends With a Hunt in Australia’s Outback.” 5 December 2020, updated 7 December 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/05/science/japan-asteroid-hayabusa2-woomera.html?referringSource=articleShare
Edwards, Jim. “Goldman Sachs: space-mining for platinum is ‘more realistic than perceived.'” 6 April 2017. Business Insider. https://www.insider.com/goldman-sachs-space-mining-asteroid-platinum-2017-4.
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). “Video for the extended mission.” https://www.hayabusa2.jaxa/jp/en/topics/20201116_extMission/
Lang, Kenneth R. “1998 KY26.” 2010. Tufts University. https://ase.tufts.edu/cosmos/view_picture.asp?id=749
Lies, Elaine. “Asteroid sample arrives in Japan after six-year space odyssey,” 8 December 2020. Reuters.com. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-space-exploration-japan-layabusa2-idUSKBN2810NU.
Lusk Brooke, Kathleen and Zoë Quinn. “Space: Hayabusa touchdown on Ryugu.” 21 September 2018. https://blogs.umb.edu/buildingtheworld/2018/09/21/space-hayabusa-touchdown-on-ryugu/
Redd, Nola Taylor. “Asteroid Belt: Facts & Formation.” 5 May 2017. Space.com. https://www.space.com/16105-asteroid-belt.html.
Rincon, Paul. “Hayabusa-2: Rocks from an asteroid set for delivery to Earth.” BBC.com. 6 December 2020.
Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unp