SAGAMIHARA, Kanagawa -- Scientists and mission staff at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) expressed their joy and renewed enthusiasm as its space probe Hayabusa2 completed its round trip to the asteroid Ryugu and dropped a capsule believed to carry samples from the mission in the southern Australian desert.
Six years and 5.2 billion kilometers on from its launch, Project Manager Yuichi Tsuda hailed Hayabusa2's success at a Dec. 6 press conference held at JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, saying, "Its space and sample collection operations were perfect. We're really looking forward to opening the capsule. If I were to score it out of 100, I'd give it 10,000."
At around 2 a.m. that same day, the capsule's fireball was observed, and mission control lit up when its landing was confirmed. Immediately after, Tsuda said, "It was a beautiful atmospheric entry. We were all moved."
The operation was not without setbacks of the terrestrial kind, either. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, members of JAXA's collection team were caught in a city-wide lockdown in Australia after arriving in the country, and on the morning of Dec. 5, the day before pick-up, it rained at the landing site.
But the day the capsule came to Earth, skies were clear, and the fireball could be observed on its descent. The work to recover it also went smoothly. Officials involved in the operation expressed relief that the weather had been on their side.
Previous Japanese space probes have not fared so well. Among the difficulties faced, the probe Nozomi failed in its attempt to enter Mars's orbit, and the previous Hayabusa probe experienced a litany of troubles, while the Akatsuki probe failed one of its attempts to enter Venus's orbit.
Conversely, Hayabusa2's mission has all gone according to plan. Institute of Space and Astronautical Science Director General Hitoshi Kuninaka said, "Japan's space probes have entered the next stage. I want us to use this momentum to help us with the challenges of the next probe."
But the mission did confront problems. The asteroid Ryugu is covered in rocks, meaning there was nowhere on it for the probe to land safely. At the press conference, Tsuda reflected, "We were put on the edge of despair, but using our ingenuity we found a way forward. We learned that where there's a will, there's a way." He added, "I had never imagined that I'd feel this happy to see this day come."
As it took off for a different asteroid, Hayabusa2 managed to take a photograph of Earth. "We took it to mean that the probe is telling the Earth it's leaving. Looking at the image, which emphasizes the greenery on the Earth's surface, Japan looks so small. It's like it was leaving Japan while waving goodbye," said Tsuda.
(Japanese original by Etsuko Nagayama, Opinion Group)