A spacecraft has sent a capsule tumbling towards earth, carrying samples from an asteroid that could contain clues to the origin of the solar system, Japan’s space agency has said.
The capsule – just 15 inches (40cm) in diameter – detached from the Hayabusa2 craft 136,700 miles (220,000km) from Earth, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said.
The subsurface samples it is carrying – the first ever to be collected from an asteroid – may contain information about life on our planet.
It is believed the data may be unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors.
Yuichi Tsuda, project manager at JAXA, stood up and raised his fists as those around him cheered the capsule’s successful separation.
Space enthusiasts observed the event at gatherings across Japan, including at the Tokyo Dome stadium.
The capsule is due to land in a sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia, on Sunday.
Protected by a heat shield, it will briefly turn into a fireball as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere 75 miles (121km) away.
Once it is six miles (10km) above ground, a parachute will open and beacon signals will indicate its location to satellite dishes set up in the target area.
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid, Ryugu, a year ago, after spending 18 months nearby. Ryugu is about 180 million miles (300 million km) from Earth.
Hayabusa2 will now capture images of the capsule, before heading for another small asteroid called 1998KY26, in a journey expected to take 10 years.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft recently made a successful touch-and-go grab of surface samples from asteroid Bennu.
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