Japan finds a spacecraft which will comprise clues to the origins of planets

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© Reuters. A fireball from Hayabusa2's capsule, which contains the first extensive samples of an asteroid, is seen re-entering the Earth's atmosphere

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By Stanley White and Melanie Burton

TOKYO / MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Japan has brought a spacecraft out of Australia's remote outback after a six-year mission that could help learn more about the origins of the planets, the Asian nation's space agency said on Sunday.

A capsule from the unmanned Hayabusa2, which contained the first extensive dust samples from an asteroid, was flown by helicopter from the outback to a domestic research facility of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

The craft's mission seeks to answer some fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system and the origins of molecules like water.

"That's great," said Yuichi Tsuda, the agency's project manager, to the Japanese broadcaster NHK. "It was a wonderful re-entry. We are all very moved."

The agency will hold a briefing later on Sunday.

The spacecraft, which was launched from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center in 2014, took four years to reach the asteroid Ryugu before collecting a sample and returning to Earth in November 2019.

The audience gathered in a theater to see the return. They clapped and waved banners in NHK footage, causing a woman to cry. They wore masks and took precautions against the coronavirus.

Asteroids are believed to have formed early in the solar system, and scientists say the sample may contain organic matter that may have contributed to life on Earth.

"We are really trying to study this pristine rock that has not been exposed to the sun," astrophysicist Lisa Harvey-Smith told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Gases trapped in the rock samples could reveal more about conditions that existed about 4.6 billion years ago, she added.

Japan's spacecraft, named after the peregrine falcon, circled the asteroid for a few months to map its surface before landing. Then a crater was blown up with small explosives and the resulting debris was collected.

The capsule lit up when it reentered the Earth's atmosphere early Sunday and landed in the Woomera Restricted Area, about 460 km north of Adelaide, to be retrieved by scientists and taken to a research station, JAXA said.

"The helicopter with the capsule arrived at the local headquarters and the capsule was brought into the building," the space agency said on Twitter.

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