Japan has completed its 3-billion-mile mission to collect dust from an asteroid. Photos show the prize falling into Australia like a fireball.

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A JAXA worker retrieves the capsule dropped by Hayabusa-2 in Woomera, Australia, December 6, 2020. JAXA via AP

A fireball streaking across the sky disturbed the darkness of the Australian outback on Saturday night. Then the object from space poofed out a parachute, slowing its plummet toward the ground. Minutes later, it landed gently in the red desert dust and began beaming out its location.

The flying object was a capsule containing the first samples ever collected from below the surface of an asteroid — the fruits of Japan’s Hayabusa-2 mission.

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The Hayabusa-2 sample-return capsule about to re-enter Earth, as seen in Coober Pedy, Australia on December 6, 2020. JAXA via AP

In 2014, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched a spacecraft to asteroid Ryugu: a primitive, half-mile-wide rock that zips through our solar system up to 131 million miles (211 million kilometers) from the sun.

The Hayabusa-2 probe landed on Ryugu in February to collect shallow samples from the asteroid’s surface. Then two months later, the mission went a step further: The probe blasted a 33-foot crater into Ryugu using a copper plate and a box of explosives. That loosened rocks and exposed material below the surface. In July 2019, Hayabusa-2 lowered itself once again and scooped up the debris.

Scientists believe this subsurface material could be as old as our solar system, since it’s been shielded from the sun’s radiation and hasn’t undergone the heating and cooling processes that altered rock inside the planets.

As such, the Hayabusa-2 samples could reveal new details about the beginnings of our solar system and the origins of life on Earth.

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The Japanese Hayabusa-2 spacecraft lands on an asteroid to collect samples. JAXA/Associated Press

With that asteroid loot on board, the spacecraft zipped back and arrived in Earth’s orbit on Saturday. Then it released the sample capsule — the “treasure box,” as JAXA calls it — and allowed it to fall towards Earth.

All in all, Hayabusa-2 has travelled nearly 3.3 billion miles.

Retrieving asteroid loot from the Australian outback

As the capsule rocketed through the atmosphere at 7.5 miles per second, it burned a path across the night sky. JAXA captured the burst in its live feed of the sample return — the embedded video below starts at that moment.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dq_6FRV91Hs?start=2657

About 6 miles above the ground, the capsule released a parachute and drifted safely into the wilderness of Woomera, Australia. It landed at about 2:28 a.m. local time on Sunday.

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The capsule that Hayabusa-2 dropped into Woomera, Australia, December 6, 2020. JAXA via AP

Upon arrival, the treasure box beamed out a signal to several nearby antennae, allowing a JAXA team to triangulate the capsule’s location.

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JAXA workers set up an antenna in Woomera, Australia, in preparation for the Hayabusa-2 capsule return, November 2020. JAXA via AP

The retrieval team waited until the sun rose, then drove out to the landing spot.

They reached the capsule at 8:03 a.m. local time and packed it up for travel.

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JAXA workers pack up the Hayabusa-2 sample capsule for transport, December 6, 2020. JAXA via AP

“JAXA’s outstanding technical achievement today is testament to the depth of science and technology knowledge in Japan,” Jan Adams, Australia’s ambassador to Japan, said in a press conference. “Hayabusa-2 has delivered its precious cargo back to Earth.”

Organic materials on Ryugu could point to the origins of life

Next, JAXA will transport the sample to Japan and distribute portions of it for scientific study.

Ryugu is a C-type asteroid, which means it’s rich with organic carbon molecules, water, and possibly amino acids — the building blocks for proteins that were essential to the evolution of life on Earth. Some theories posit that an asteroid first delivered amino acids to our planet.

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Asteroid Ryugu, captured by the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft’s camera as it approached in April 2019. JAXA

“Organic materials are the origins of life on Earth, but we still don’t know where they came from,” Makoto Yoshikawa, a Hayabusa-2 project mission manager, said in a briefing on Friday, according to The Guardian. “We are hoping to find clues to the origin of life on Earth by analysing details of the organic materials brought back by Hayabusa-2.”

The Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, meanwhile, will continue on an 11-year extended mission to explore a small, rapidly spinning asteroid called 1998 KY26.

NASA is up next

A NASA spacecraft scooped up its own asteroid sample this year: Osiris-Rex (short for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer). The probe, which launched in 2016, high-fived asteroid Bennu on October 20, landing on its surface for just six seconds to stir up dust. In that brief landing, it collected a whopping 2 pounds of sample material.

The spacecraft won’t return with its bounty until 2023.

But combined, the samples from Osiris-Rex and Hyabusa-2 will provide the world’s first comprehensive set of pristine asteroid material. NASA and JAXA have agreed to share portions of their samples with each other for scientific study.

Fractions of both agencies’ asteroid samples will also be stored for future research.

“These samples returned from Bennu will also allow future planetary scientists to ask questions we can’t even think of today and to be able to use analysis techniques that aren’t even invented yet,” Lori Glaze, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a briefing after Osiris-Rex collected its sample.