A container with material from a space rock called Ryugu parachuted down near Woomera in South Australia on Saturday evening (GMT). A helicopter team homed in on a radio beacon and found the capsule intact. The capsule containing the first significant quantities of rock from an asteroid is in “perfect” shape, according to Japanese scientists.

A recovery team in Australia found the spacecraft lying on the sandy ground, with its parachute draped over a bush.

Cameras in Australia captured the fireball as the capsule re-entered the atmosphere

The samples were originally collected by the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa-2. Hayabusa-2 is a successor to the Hayabusa mission which returned microscopic-sized asteroid samples to the Earth for the first time in June 2010. Hayabusa-2 was launched on 3 December 2014 and rendezvoused with near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu on 27 June 2018. The spacecraft name means “falcon” in Japanese (maybe a Star Wars reference? Maybe not, but wouldn’t that be something?)

Hayabusa-2 is home,” Dr Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for the mission, said at a press conference on Sunday morning (GMT) in Sagamihara, Japan. “We collected the treasure box,” he said, adding: “The capsule collection was perfectly done.”

The capsule will next be airlifted to Japan, where it will be transported to a curation chamber at Jaxa (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) in Sagamihara for analysis.

Asteroids are essentially leftover building materials from the formation of the Solar System. They’re made of the same stuff that went into forming the Earth, and can be older the Earth itself. Studying the samples from Ryugu could tell us about the early solar system, and how water and the ingredients for life were delivered to the early Earth.

A rover deployed by Hayabusa-2 sent back this image from the surface of Ryugu

The Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, which bypassed the Earth after releasing its capsule, is being sent on another mission. It will now travel to a much smaller, 30m-wide asteroid, reaching it in 2031.

Artist conception of JAXA’s Hayabusa-2 spacecraft at the asteroid Ryugu. Image credit: German Aerospace Center

Meanwhile, NASA’S OSIRIS-REx mission is due to return kilograms of samples from asteroid Bennu in September 2023. JAXA and NASA have agreed to swap samples from their respective missions.