The spacecraft Hayabusa2 released the small capsule on Saturday and sent it toward Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid. At about 10 kilometers above ground, a parachute was opened to slow its fall and beacon signals were transmitted to indicate its location in the sparsely populated area of Woomera in southern Australia.
About two hours after the reentry, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said its helicopter search team found the capsule in the planned landing area. The retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule, about 40 centimeters in diameter, was completed after another two hours.
“The capsule collection work at the landing site was completed,” the agency said in a tweet. “We practiced a lot for today … it ended safe.”
The return of the capsule with the world’s first asteroid subsurface samples comes weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made a successful touch-and-go grab of surface samples from asteroid Bennu. China, meanwhile, announced this week its lunar lander collected underground samples and sealed them within the spacecraft for return to Earth, as space developing nations compete in their missions.
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometers away, a year ago. After it released the capsule, it moved away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending toward the planet as it set off on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.
The capsule descended from 220,000 kilometers away after it was separated from Hayabusa2 in a challenging operation that required precision control. JAXA officials said they hoped to conduct a preliminary safety inspection at an Australian lab and bring the capsule back to Japan early next week.