For the Second Time Ever, an Asteroid Sample Returns to Earth

Early on Sunday morning, the skies above a secluded military complex in central Australia will be brightened by a fireball plummeting to Earth. It will be a flamboyant homecoming for the sample return capsule from Hayabusa2, a Japanese spacecraft launched almost exactly six years ago on a mission to shoot an ancient asteroid and steal some of its dirt. If the capsule survives its fiery descent, its payload of pristine space rock will help scientists understand the earliest days of our solar system, shed light on the mysterious origins of meteorites, and may even provide clues about the emergence of life on Earth.

By the time it lands under parachute in the Australian outback, the sample will have traveled more than 180 million miles from Ryugu, a diamond-shaped asteroid orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. Scientists believe that Ryugu broke off from a larger parent body only a few million years ago, but the rocks that compose it are closer to 4 billion years old. Hayabusa2 camped out around Ryugu for more than a year and a half, studying the asteroid from a distance and sending robotic scouts to its surface to prepare for a sample collection. It’s main mission was to collect just a few grams of dust and pebbles from this cosmic time capsule that has been preserved for eons in the frigid vacuum of space.

“We’re hoping to learn a lot about how a giant cloud of gas and dust turned into planets 4.5 billion years ago in our solar system,” says Larry Nittler, a cosmochemist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and one of nine American scientists selected by NASA to participate in the Japanese mission. “Ryugu and other asteroids like it are basically the leftover building blocks that didn’t grow into planets and have been floating around ever since.”

Ryugu looks like a piece of charcoal the size of several city blocks, and it spins like a top once every eight hours. It is one of the darkest asteroids ever discovered, its inky complexion a result of all the carbon trapped in organic compounds smeared across its surface. Some of these prebiotic compounds, such as amino acids, are the building blocks of life, and it may very well have been asteroids like Ryugu that seeded Earth with the molecular grist that kicked evolution into gear.

Carbonaceous asteroids like Ryugu are abundant in our solar system, but they mostly hang out around the outer planets. Every now and then, they bump into each other, break apart, and the pieces are sent on a trajectory toward the sun’s inner sanctum. If those pieces happen to collide with Earth, we call them meteorites. Almost everything we know about them is from the bits and pieces that make it to the surface. But by the time these stones have crash-landed on Earth, they have been cooked to a crisp and have been corrupted by terrestrial chemistry. Sending a probe to a still-orbiting asteroid is the best way to

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China spacecraft is returning to Earth with moon samples in a first for the country

  • A Chinese spacecraft carrying lunar samples has blasted off from the moon and is preparing to come back to earth.
  • It’s the first time China has launched a spacecraft from an extraterrestrial body and the first time it has collected moon samples.
  • If the moon samples make it back to earth, China will be only the third country to retrieve lunar samples after the efforts by the U.S. and Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.



a store front at night: The Long March 5 rocket carrying Chang'e 5 is seen on the launch pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Site on Hainan. The 8.2-tonne Change 5 probe, which consists of a lander, an ascender, a service module and a return capsule, is the sixth mission of the Chinese lunar exploration programme Change. The goal of the mission is to collect lunar soil and rock samples from Oceanus Procellarum and bring them back to the Earth. If successful, Change 5 will be the first sample-return mission since the 1976.


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The Long March 5 rocket carrying Chang’e 5 is seen on the launch pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Site on Hainan. The 8.2-tonne Change 5 probe, which consists of a lander, an ascender, a service module and a return capsule, is the sixth mission of the Chinese lunar exploration programme Change. The goal of the mission is to collect lunar soil and rock samples from Oceanus Procellarum and bring them back to the Earth. If successful, Change 5 will be the first sample-return mission since the 1976.

GUANGZHOU, China — A Chinese spacecraft carrying lunar samples has blasted off from the moon and is preparing to come back to Earth.

It’s the first time China has launched a spacecraft from an extraterrestrial body and the first time it has collected moon samples. If the moon samples make it back to Earth, China will be only the third country in the world to retrieve lunar samples after the efforts by the U.S. in the 1960s and the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

At 23:10 p.m. Beijing time on Thursday, the Chang’e-5 spacecraft took off from the moon, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The spacecraft was successfully launched into a pre-determined orbit around the moon.

The probe will meet with a return spacecraft to get back to Earth and is expected to land in China’s Inner Mongolia region around mid-December.

China has ramped up its space efforts in the last few years. President Xi Jinping urged the industry earlier this year to make China a “great space power as soon as possible,” according to state-backed China Daily. 

In June, China launched the final satellite to complete Beidou, its rival to the U.S. government-owned Global Positioning System (GPS), which is widely used across the world. 

And in July, China also launched an ambitious mission to Mars called Tianwen -1.

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Japan Space Probe To Bring Asteroid Dust To Earth

Call it a special delivery: after six years in space, Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe is heading home, but only to drop off its rare asteroid samples before starting a new mission.

The fridge-sized probe, launched in December 2014, has already thrilled scientists by landing on and gathering material from an asteroid some 300 million kilometres (185 million miles) from Earth.

Hayabusa-2 will near Earth to drop off rare asteroid samples before heading back into deep space on a new extended mission Hayabusa-2 will near Earth to drop off rare asteroid samples before heading back into deep space on a new extended mission Photo: AFP / Behrouz MEHRI

But its work isn’t over yet, with scientists from Japan’s space agency JAXA now planning to extend its mission for more than a decade and targeting two new asteroids.

Before that mission can begin, Hayabusa-2 needs to drop off its precious samples from the asteroid Ryugu — “dragon palace” in Japanese.

Scientists are hoping the capsule will contain around 0.1 grams of material that will offer clues about what the solar system was like at its birth some 4.6 billion years ago.

Graphic explaining how Japan's Hayabusa-2 space probe will drop off asteroid samples to Earth before starting a new mission Graphic explaining how Japan’s Hayabusa-2 space probe will drop off asteroid samples to Earth before starting a new mission Photo: AFP / Janis LATVELS

The samples could shed light on “how matter is scattered around the solar system, why it exists on the asteroid and how it is related to Earth,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda told reporters ahead of Sunday’s drop-off.

The material is in a capsule that will separate from Hayabusa-2 while it is some 220,000 kilometres above Earth and then plummet into the southern Australian desert.

They were collected during two crucial phases of the mission last year.

Hayabusa-2 needs to drop off its precious samples from the asteroid Ryugu - 'dragon palace' in Japanese Hayabusa-2 needs to drop off its precious samples from the asteroid Ryugu – ‘dragon palace’ in Japanese Photo: JIJI PRESS / Handout

In the first, Hayabusa-2 touched down on Ryugu to collect dust before firing an “impactor” to stir up pristine material from below the surface. Months later, it touched down to collect additional samples.

“We may be able to get substances that will give us clues to the birth of a planet and the origin of life… I’m very interested to see the substances,” mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa told reporters.

Half the material from Ryugu will be kept for future study as advances are made in analytic technology Half the material from Ryugu will be kept for future study as advances are made in analytic technology Photo: Jaumann et. al., Science 2019 / HO

Protected from sunlight and radiation inside the capsule, the samples will be collected, processed, then flown to Japan.

Half the material will be shared between JAXA, US space agency NASA and other international organisations, and the rest kept for future study as advances are made in analytic technology.

Videographic presenting the Hayabusa2 mission. Nearly six years after its launch from the Tanegashima space centre in Japan, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 is on the verge of completing its mission.
VIDEOGRAPHICS Videographic presenting the Hayabusa2 mission. Nearly six years after its launch from the Tanegashima space centre in Japan, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 is on the verge of completing its mission.
VIDEOGRAPHICS
Photo: AFP VIDEOGRAPHICS/CNES/JAXA / David Lory

After dropping off its samples, Hayabusa-2 will complete a series of orbits around the sun for around six years — recording data on dust in interplanetary space and observing exoplanets.

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Chinese moon probe begins return to Earth with lunar samples

BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese lunar probe lifted off from the moon Thursday night with a cargo of lunar samples on the first stage of its return to Earth, the government space agency reported, on what is expected to be a breakthrough mission for the rising Asian space power.

Chang’e 5, the third Chinese spacecraft to land on the moon and the first to take off from it again, is the latest in a series of increasingly ambitious missions for Beijing’s space program, which also has a spacecraft en route to Mars carrying a robot rover.

READ MORE: 3 questions after the discovery of water molecules on the sunlit moon

The Chang’e 5 touched down Tuesday on the Sea of Storms on the moon’s near side, on a mission to return lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since 1976.

Its ascender module lifted off from the lunar surface shortly after 11 p.m. Beijing time Thursday (1500 GMT) and was to connect with its return vehicle in lunar orbit and transfer the samples to the capsule, according to the China National Space Administration. The moon rocks and debris were sealed inside a special canister to avoid contamination.

Chang’e 5’s lander module, which remained on the moon, is equipped to both scoop samples from the surface and drill 2 meters (more than 6 feet) to retrieve materials that could provide clues to the history of the moon, Earth other planets and space features.

Upon takeoff, the lander unfurled what the space administration called the first free-standing Chinese flag on the lunar surface.

While retrieving samples was its main task, the lander is also equipped to extensively photograph the area surrounding its landing site, map conditions below the surface with ground penetrating radar and analyze the lunar soil for minerals and water content.

Chang’e 5′s return module is supposed to touch down on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where China’s crewed Shenzhou spacecraft have made their returns since China first put a man in space in 2003, becoming only the third country do so after Russia and the United States.

Chang’e 5 has revived talk of China one day sending a crewed mission to the moon and possibly building a scientific base there, although no timeline has been proposed for such projects.

READ MORE: Asteroid samples tucked into capsule for return to Earth

China also launched Its first temporary orbiting laboratory in 2011 and a second in 2016. Plans call for a permanent space station after 2022, possibly to be serviced by a reusable space plane.

While China is boosting cooperation with the European Space Agency and others, interactions with NASA are severely limited by U.S. concerns over the secretive nature and close military links of the Chinese program.

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China Moon Mission: Chang’e-5 Launches, Starting Trip Back to Earth

Two days after it landed on the moon, China’s Chang’e-5 mission is on its way again, blasting off back to space, the beginning of its journey back to Earth ferrying a bounty of soil and rocks for scientists to study.

The top half of the lander launched at 10:10 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday, according to the China National Space Administration. Footage posted by Chinese state media showed the flash of the spacecraft’s engine as it headed to orbit, an ascent that took about six minutes.

It was the first time any spacecraft had launched from the lunar surface since the end of the Cold War moon race in 1976, and the first Chinese spacecraft to ever blast off from another world in the solar system.

The lander set down on Tuesday in a region of the moon known as Mons Rümker. The spacecraft was in the middle of a basalt lava plain that is about two billion years younger than the parts of the moon explored more than four decades ago by NASA’s Apollo astronauts and the Soviet Union’s robotic Luna landers. Images from the spacecraft show a desolate landscape with gentle rolling hills, a sign of its youth.

Within hours of arriving on the moon, Chang’e-5 set about drilling and scooping its lunar samples — perhaps more than four pounds.

Scientists are curious how this region remained molten far longer than the rest of the moon. Examination of these rocks in laboratories on Earth will also pin down their exact age, and that will calibrate a method that planetary scientists use to determine the ages of the surfaces of planets, moons and other bodies throughout the solar system.

The spacecraft’s departure is the first step in a complex sequence to return the rocks to Earth.

After it arrived in lunar orbit over the weekend, Chang’e-5 split into two. While the lander headed for the surface, the other half remained in orbit.

The ascent portion of the lander is to rendezvous and dock with the piece that remained in orbit. The rocks and soil will be transferred to a return capsule for a trip back to Earth, parachuting to a landing in Inner Mongolia later this month.

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Earth Is on the Cusp of the Sixth Mass Extinction. Here’s What Paleontologists Want You to Know

Rhinos, elephants, whales and sharks — the list of endangered species is long and depressing. But it’s not just these big, beautiful, familiar animals at risk. Earth is hemorrhaging species, from mammals to fish and insects. The loss of biodiversity we’re facing right now is staggering, thanks to habitat loss, pollution, climate change and other calamities.

There have been five mass extinctions in the history of planet Earth. We’re on the threshold of a sixth. But extinction events don’t happen overnight. They unfold over millions of years. For humans that live maybe 80 or 90-some years, that’s very hard to wrap our minds around.

To get an idea of how to think about the sixth mass extinction, I spoke to people who’ve intensively studied the first five: paleontologists. I asked them what they’d like the rest of us to know. And I asked them what, in these scary times, gives them hope.

These conversations were difficult. I heard phrases like “dead species walking” and “slow, creeping despair.” But I also heard notes of hope, too.  

It’s Worse Than It Looks

One reason we don’t always appreciate the gravity of the problem is that we can’t really see it happening. We might read alarming numbers in scientific journals, watch heartbreaking documentaries, and catch news coverage of monster hurricanes and dislodged ice sheets linked to climate change. But biodiversity loss happens quietly in the background of our lives.

Precisely because extinction is long and slow, the effects of the harm we’re doing now will be felt for a long time to come. Jill Leonard-Pingel is a paleoecologist at The Ohio State University and the assistant director of the Orton Geological Museum there. She describes something called extinction debt. This refers to the delay between the damage and the eventual extinction of a species. “If we don’t see the total extinction of a group of animals in our lifetimes, or even a couple of generations, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t fated for extinction,” she says. In other words, we’ve already killed some of the species that appear on T-shirts urging people to save them.

However, the damage won’t always be in the background. Nizar Ibrahim is a paleontologist at the University of Detroit Mercy and a National Geographic explorer. “There will be a point in the not too distant future when we suddenly see and feel this mass extinction all around us very clearly,” Ibrahim says. Ellen Currano, a paleobotanist at the University of Wyoming, points out that this extinction is not like the one that occurred when an asteroid hit Earth 35 million years ago, releasing tremendous energy and igniting global wildfires. “This is a lot slower than that, on the scale of human lifetimes,” she says.

Earth will recover, of course — life is tough. “A key point of extinction crises is that life has always recovered and doubtless will recover whatever we do to the planet,” says Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in the U.K.

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NASA confirms mysterious object orbiting Earth is 1960s-era rocket booster

The mystery is finally over — the space object that was captured by Earth’s orbit is indeed a rocket booster from the 1960s, NASA confirmed.

On Wednesday, the government space agency said the object known as “2020 SO” is not an asteroid, but rather a part of a Centaur rocket booster from the Surveyor 2 spacecraft, which launched toward the moon in 1966.

“Due to extreme faintness of this object following [Center for Near-Earth Object Studies] prediction it was a challenging object to characterize,” said Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor and planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, in a statement. “We got color observations with the Large Binocular Telescope or LBT that suggested 2020 SO was not an asteroid.” 

This 1964 photograph shows a Centaur upper-stage rocket before being mated to an Atlas booster. A similar Centaur was used during the launch of "Surveyor 2" two years later. Credit: NASA

This 1964 photograph shows a Centaur upper-stage rocket before being mated to an Atlas booster. A similar Centaur was used during the launch of “Surveyor 2” two years later. Credit: NASA

MYSTERIOUS OBJECT THAT COULD BE 1960S ROCKET BOOST WILL FLY PAST EARTH TODAY: HOW TO VIEW IT

“This conclusion was the result of a tremendous team effort,” Reddy added. “We were finally able to solve this mystery because of the great work of Pan-STARRS, Paul Chodas and the team at CNEOS, LBT, [Infrared Telescope Facility], and the observations around the world.”

On Tuesday, the rocket booster made its closest brush with Earth, when it came within 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) of the planet, according to Virtual Telescope Project founder Gianluca Masi.

NASA has posted a video of 2020 SO’s looping orbits around the Earth.

Unfortunately, the Surveyor 2 never completed its journey, crashing on the lunar surface on Sept. 23, 1966. However, the Centaur booster “sailed past the Moon and disappeared into an unknown orbit about the Sun,” NASA said previously.

The rocket booster was initially discovered by the Pan-STARRS survey on Sept. 17, 2020 and announced two days later.

2020 SO initially “slowly drifted” into Earth’s Hill sphere on Nov. 8, 2020, and will remain there for roughly four months before it goes back into orbit around the sun in March 2021.

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Moon probe preparing to return rock samples to Earth

BEIJING (AP) — China’s latest lunar probe has finished taking samples of the moon’s surface and sealed them within the spacecraft for return to Earth, the government announced Thursday.

The Chang’e 5, the third Chinese probe to land on the moon, is the latest in a series of increasingly ambitious missions for Beijing’s space program, which also has a probe en route to Mars carrying a robot rover.

The Chang’e 5 touched down Tuesday on a mission to return lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since 1976.

The probe “has completed sampling on the moon, and the samples have been sealed within the spacecraft,” the China National Space Administration said in a statement.


Plans call for the upper stage of the probe to be launched back into lunar orbit to transfer the samples to a capsule for return to Earth.

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Mysterious object that flew by Earth has finally been identified



2020 so


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2020 so

  • The object originally dubbed Asteroid 2020 SO appears to be a long-lost rocket booster that left Earth in 1966 and finally came back.
  • The booster was part of a failed NASA mission to the Moon, and it has apparently been orbiting the Sun ever since.
  • Space junk is becoming an increasingly serious problem, and manmade trash in space could pose a threat to future missions.

Back in September news began to circulate that an object was headed for Earth. That alone wouldn’t be particularly big news, but what made this revelation so interesting is that nobody knew what the object actually was. Was it an asteroid? Perhaps it was, but some scientists offered a different explanation, and now that the object has safely passed by Earth it appears they were probably correct.

The strange near-Earth object originally dubbed Asteroid 2020 SO turned out to be likely manmade. It is now believed to be the remains of a very old rocket that was launched way back in the 1960s. As the mysterious visitor passed by Earth, images of it helped to potentially reveal its true identity, and remind us yet again that humans have a habit of leaving trash wherever they go.

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Researchers working with the Virtual Telescope Project held a live stream event to track the object as it approached our planet. The high-powered hardware was able to lock onto the bright dot as it cruised through space, and astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, the founder of the project, noted that it was “likely” a piece of NASA hardware that has come back to visit.

Scientists had suspected that the object might not really be an asteroid for some time. This was based on the fact that the object appeared to have a very similar Sun-centric orbit to Earth’s, and the relatively low velocity of 2020 SO offered further clues that it was actually just a piece of junk we accidentally sent flying around the Sun.

The rocket — if that is indeed what it turns out to be — is thought to be a Centaur booster launched way back in September of 1966. It was part of the Surveyor 2 mission which was supposed to send a lunar lander to the Moon’s surface. Unfortunately, the spacecraft lost control and the mission failed as a result, but the rocket booster appears to have lived on, making trips around the Sun and eventually catching back up with Earth.

If a rocket booster from 1966 can come back to “haunt” us after that long, then it’s no surprise that Earth is surrounded by pieces of manmade junk that just won’t go away. Recently, the European Space Agency made the decision to spend the equivalent of roughly $100 million for a mission that will remove a single large piece of space junk from the area around our planet. The mission will launch sometime in 2025.

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China collects moon samples to study on Earth

“Chang’e has collected moon samples,” the agency said in a statement.

The probe, launched November 24 from the island of Hainan, is the latest venture by the space program that sent China’s first astronaut into orbit in 2003. Beijing also has a spacecraft headed to Mars and aims to land a human on the moon.

This week’s landing is “a historic step in China’s cooperation with the international community in the peaceful use of outer space,” said foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

“China will continue to promote international cooperation and the exploration and use of outer space in the spirit of working for the benefit of all mankind,” Hua said.

Plans call for the lander to spend two days drilling into the lunar surface and collecting 4.4 pounds of rocks and debris. The top stage of the probe will be launched back into lunar orbit to transfer the samples to a capsule to take back to Earth, where it is to land in China’s northern grasslands in mid-December.

If it succeeds, it will be the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 probe in 1976.

The samples are expected to be made available to scientists from other nations, although it is unclear how much access NASA will have due to U.S. government restrictions on cooperation with China’s military-linked program.

From the rocks and debris, scientists hope to learn more about the moon, including its precise age, as well as increased knowledge about other bodies in our solar system. Collecting samples, including from asteroids, is an increasing focus of many space programs.

Chinese space program officials have said they envision future crewed missions along with robotic ones, including possibly a permanent research base. No timeline or other details have been announced.

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