On Earth, Japan’s asteroid samples encountered unexpected challenges: A pandemic, traffic bottlenecks, and airport security

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Asteroid rock collection is rocket science; transporting the boulders to a laboratory is another issue entirely.

Take, for example, Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission, that commenced in 2014 with the goal of capturing samples from a near-Earth asteroid named Ryugu and returning them to Earth in December 2020. However, even though the space stones arrived in Japan, the journey was far from ended. For one thing, NASA’s Astro materials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) facility at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Texas needed to catch another trip in order to deliver part of the asteroid material.

On Earth, Japan's asteroid samples encountered unexpected challenges: A pandemic, traffic bottlenecks, and airport security
source: newsexplorer.net

This journey did not need the use of rocket fuel; however, this does not imply that it was simple. According to Keiko Nakamura-Messenger, who worked as a Cosmo chemist at JSC until last month, “this one is, I would say, a pretty major thing.” We’re doing foreign samples for the first time, and we’re excited about it.”

Ryugu Rocks from Space

As part of Japan’s previous mission, Hayabusa, which delivered samples from an asteroid named Itokawa in 2010, NASA got several grains of asteroid dust from the spacecraft. However, during

the actual voyage, that spacecraft had several difficulties and was only able to return a little amount of material to the planet.

On Earth, Japan's asteroid samples encountered unexpected challenges: A pandemic, traffic bottlenecks, and airport security
source: newsexplorer.net

Hayabusa2 was more successful, carrying 0.2 ounces (5.4 grammes) of valuable asteroid freight to Earth in a capsule that landed in the Australian outback in December 2020, more than 50 times the quantity of priceless asteroid cargo that had been targeted. NASA, as a partner on the expedition, was to get a portion of the proceeds to add to its collection of moon rocks, meteorites, and other cosmic material, which is housed at the Johnson Space Center.

Nakamura-Messenger had intended to go to Australia first to meet the sample and mission crew, but he opted to remain at home since the COVID-19 peak was happening at the time of his departure. After that, she was scheduled to go to Japan this year to choose samples from NASA and transport them across the Pacific. In order to be kind, she was required to go pick up the sample. “It’s a gift from them to us, so it’s only nice,” she said. However, because of the continuing coronavirus epidemic, that plan was also thwarted since Japan had put in place regulations that prohibited non-citizens from entering the nation.

In regards to the sample transfer procedure, Nakamura-Messenger said that the pandemic was the main stumbling block. “Everything just sort of went in the opposite direction of what we wanted.”

As a result, just like so many other significant events in the last year, sample selection was done digitally. A database maintained by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) catalogued each sample of asteroid rock from Ryugu, and Nakamura-Messenger searched through it for a diversity of sizes, colors, and textures among the material. ‘We want to keep [the samples] as mysterious and as raw as we possibly can,’ she said.

Then two members of the JAXA crew flew the priceless cargo to Texas.

A scientist examines a Ryugu sample retrieved by the Japanese Hayabusa 2 spacecraft.

An Asteroid Carry-on

The logistics were, to put it mildly, out of this world. They had already battled through the frigid vacuum of space and the scorching heat of diving into the Earth’s atmosphere, and now they had to contend with the mundane routine of contemporary commercial air travel.

‘Of course, we don’t want to inspect them,’ Nakamura-Messenger said, adding that they had to be carried by hand the whole route. According to her, JAXA sent NASA the materials in 29 squat, very complex cylinders, which were then placed inside four military-grade luggage that were required to stay upright during the voyage, she said.

The first obstacle to overcome was getting the odd instances through the Transportation Security Administration without being intercepted (TSA). “We had to communicate with TSA to ensure that the sample was not disturbed,” Nakamura-Messenger said. It was imperative that no samples be subjected to the X-ray machine.

After that, it’s time to board the plane: The luggage weighed 22 pounds (10 kilograms) apiece, with two cases per JAXA employee, putting each passenger considerably above the airline’s customary carry-on baggage weight restriction of 15 pounds (5 kilograms). Asteroid samples, on the other hand, are not the kind of object that can be stowed away in the overhead bins. As a courtesy, the airline provided the cases with two seats from their own and assisted the JAXA staff in keeping an eye on them.

Staff from Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on their way to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in November 2021 carrying samples of Ryugu.

After a smooth journey, the Ryugu samples and their accompanying chaperones arrived in Houston, Texas.

Because of growing anxiety over the omicron version of COVID-19, even those who did not go had a difficult voyage at the time. “We weren’t able to get much sleep for many days,” Nakamura-Messenger said. “We had no idea what the Japanese government was going to declare next,” says

the author. And, to top it all off, the JAXA staff came shortly after Thanksgiving, which happens to be the busiest time of year for flight travel in the United States.

Nakamura-Messenger said that NASA staff worked with airport security to ensure entry and staged rehearsals to evaluate several routes from the airport to JSC in order to avoid the earthliest of travel headaches – traffic. “It was the day after Thanksgiving, so the airport was really crowded,” she said.

Nakamura-Messenger claimed that everything proceeded successfully, with the samples arriving to JSC on Nov. 30, 2021, and that the JAXA group returned to Japan only two days before the Japanese government implemented harsher travel limits in reaction to the omicron version of COVID-19. “They were barely able to make it.”

Another Round Next Year

There have been several asteroid sample missions in recent years, including NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe, which collected pebbles from a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu in October 2020. Currently, the mission is on its way back to Earth, with the samples expected to be delivered in September 2023. As with earlier NASA missions — most recently, the Stardust comet-sampling mission’s return to the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) in 2006 — the delivery will land in the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR).

Although dangerous, the explosive-studded range is the first port of call for celestial goods arriving on Earth since it is the biggest secure territory in the central United States, despite the dangers it poses. ‘There are certain regions where we are unable to enter because it is too risky,’ Nakamura-Messenger said. But the OSIRIS-REx sample-return capsule is packed with sophisticated electronics that ensures it lands in a secure location on the planet.

To get to Ellington Field, which is northwest of JSC, the space rocks will be transported by NASA aircraft. A ground convoy, similar to the one that transported the Ryugu samples, will be in charge of escorting the space rocks on their last trip.

However, since Japan is owed a portion of the Bennu material in return, part of that rock will go in the opposite direction of the Ryugu samples on their transoceanic journey. Until the capsule returns, it will be impossible to tell exactly how much rock has been discovered. The sampling maneuver, on the other hand, was carried out by the spacecraft, and mission managers believe it may have collected as much as 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of Bennu pebbles, which is far more than Hayabusa2 was able to return.

This time, though, NASA officials will be making the journey. Since she resigned from NASA in late March, Nakamura-Messenger will not personally accompany the samples, but will instead deliver them to them. “Instead of their going to pick up the sample, we will bring it to them,” Nakamura-Messenger said.

However, even though she was not the one who accompanied the space rocks across the ocean, participating in the sample exchange was a significant occasion for her, especially given the fact that the Hayabusa missions are well-known in Japan. In order to join NASA, Nakamura-Messenger had to give up her Japanese passport since the country does not allow dual citizenship.

I came to the United States to pursue a career as a NASA scientist, and that was my motivation for coming. However, she admitted that it was “a little difficult” for her to give up her own identity. According to her, her mother informed her that it was worth it since “you still have a little bit of Japanese in you.”

The sample is being protected for both the United States and Japan at the same time, according to her. A tremendous, enormous thing for me personally was the fact that I was still allowed to participate in my home country’s space endeavor while working as a NASA employee.


Published by- NIKITA GOSWAMI

Tharun Pranav
Tharun Pranav
Tharun Pranav is a Law student in the School of Law, Christ University. He is an Extrovert and a Pensive person in nature. One of his strengths is Sarcasm. He also has a passion for Space, Economics and Sports. You can find him online on Instagram or LinkedIn.

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