In an audacious space success, a Japanese probe cruised to an asteroid 170 million miles away, fired a bullet into its surface, and collected samples from the bits that flew off. Around 6:30pm EST on Feb. 21, team members from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency gave the order to fire, per Space. The Hayabusa2 spacecraft released its tantalum bullet, then grabbed some of the ejected pieces from Ryugu, a 3,000-foot-wide asteroid. The samples will be fired back to Earth in a special capsule in December 2020, and scientists from all over the world will then be able to analyze the material with advanced equipment. Hayabusa2 is set to return to the asteroid: it will fire a copper bullet into the surface, then take samples from the pristine crater once the dust has drifted off.
Hayabusa2's mission could help scientists understand the formation and evolution of the solar system, and whether asteroids like Ryugu had a role in the Earth's creation. The asteroid comes from a group of space rocks that are "the most primitive building blocks of the solar system," explains the Guardian. "This is what material was like at year zero,” says planetary scientist John Bridges. Most asteroid material that falls to Earth is damaged as it burns through the atmosphere, then contaminated shortly after it hits the ground. The control room erupted into scenes of joy, reports the Japan Times, with the operation team and onlookers hugging, clapping, and pumping their fists. “We have completed our mission,” says JAXA research director Takashi Kubota. (Read more Japan stories.)