By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Samples of an asteroid 300 million km from Earth arrived in Japan on Tuesday to applause and smiles, the climax of a six-year odyssey by a space probe pursuing the origins of life.
Named for the peregrine falcon, the Hayabusa2 blasted off for the asteroid Ryugu in December 2014, overcoming an unexpectedly rough landing surface to collect samples of asteroid dust in a capsule.
That capsule plunged to earth in Australia on Sunday and was flown to Japan. The final stage of its journey was by truck to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) research centre outside Tokyo, where it was greeted by a crowd of excited researchers.
"The capsule has returned, I was out at the gate to see it," project manager Yuichi Tsuda told a news conference.
"The realization that it had gone all the way to the asteroid and back came welling up, and I felt as if something had squeezed my heart."
Asteroids are believed to have formed at the dawn of the solar system, and scientists say the sample may contain organic matter that could have contributed to life on Earth.
The Hayabasa2 orbited above Ryugu for a few months before landing, then used small explosives to blast a crater and collected the resulting debris, with the expectation that some 100 milligrams may have been gathered. After dropping off the capsule, it changed course, heading back into space.
Travel and landing restrictions posed by the coronavirus pandemic were another hurdle with researchers at one point considering whether to postpone the capsule's return.
Next up is opening the capsule. By as early as next week it may be known if sufficient material has been collected, said researcher Tomohiro Usui, noting the work will be extremely delicate.
"We need to be careful not to break the capsule or knock it over," he said. "Once that's done, the stress will ease up a bit."
(This story corrects distance in lead to kilometres, not miles)
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)