Interview with Weekend Today

Rebecca Maddern

Rebecca Maddern: In breaking news, a Japanese spacecraft has been found after it ploughed through Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the South Australian desert this morning. For more on this, we are joined by astrophysicist Professor Alan Duffy from Swinburne University and the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews. 

Hello guys, good morning. What an exciting morning it’s been. 

I’ll go to you first, Alan. This spacecraft was in orbit for six years. It travelled 5.1 billion kilometres. What was it doing up there?

Alan Duffy: This is like something from a Hollywood movie. The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 travelled across the solar system, reached an asteroid and exploded it, at least part of it, to take a sample from deep within. This material has not seen sunlight since essentially maybe even the time of the earth’s formation itself. So an incredible recovery mission that, as you know, has now safely returned and really just got us all very, very excited.

Rebecca Maddern: Oh yeah. So did you sleep last night? [Laughs]

Alan Duffy: I genuinely had a bit of insomnia. This was- this mission is incredible. To capture a piece of an asteroid to hurtle through fireball-like into the Earth’s atmosphere and then recover or be safely recovered, it was a very stressful moment and all to get a glimpse of what the conditions were like back when the Earth was forming and indeed, from this very special asteroid. Does it contain the ingredients for life itself that we find within ourselves here on Earth? This is a mission into our own deep past as well as of course a very exciting mission to the asteroid. 

Rebecca Maddern: Oh, Alan, this seems to be always just the question that we want answered. Can we live on other planets? Is that the only question you guys want to know? [Laughs]

Alan Duffy: Oh look, I have many, many questions. That’s a good one though. That’s a good one. This kind of asteroid – the ability to go to it and to recover material from it is a great demonstration of our abilities as a species to go out an explore and use resource in space. But this mission was all about taking that material back to Earth and learning about the conditions and indeed, the ingredients that would go into life itself here on our planet.

Rebecca Maddern: Minister, good morning to you. I’ll ask you the same question. Did you sleep last night?

Karen Andrews: Well, I was getting live updates from the head of the Space Agency from earlier this morning. So look, I was so excited. This is just a great day for Australia. It’s so important for space, it’s so important for research and of course, it’s very good for our relationship with Japan.

Rebecca Maddern: I want to ask you about that. Australia has been working closely with Japan’s aerospace agency on this return mission. And that very agency actually helped our emergency services fight last year’s summer bushfires. Is that right? 

Karen Andrews: Yes. Absolutely. So we’ve long worked very closely with JAXA and we’ll continue to do so for the future. But yes, we did get support from them during our bushfire season and it really did help us a lot with what we were getting through from them. So a big thank you to JAXA and the Japanese Government for the support that they have given us.

Rebecca Maddern: Karen, so now this has been a successful project, do you except more space missions could be conducted here in Australia?

Karen Andrews: Yes. Absolutely. So we’ll continue to work with JAXA and other space agencies. But of course, we have a new head of the Australian Space Agency starting in January. That’s Enrico Palermo and he is currently the Chief Operating Officer for Virgin Galactic. So, I’ll be working closely with him to do everything that we can to get Australia involved in future space missions. 

Rebecca Maddern: Alan, and the final one to you, now that we’ve got this sample, how much do we have? Is it like something I could hold in my hand or is it big? What do we do with it now?

Alan Duffy: Okay. This is a bit where it may sound a little underwhelming. 

Rebecca Maddern: Oh no.

Alan Duffy: We literally have a pinch, we hope, we hope. We have to open the capsule to discover this. We hope we have a pinch of an asteroid. But to astronomists, to scientists, that is a world of information that we can explore. It will be analysed to the absolute extremes both here in Australia with our technology but also back in Japan and that will tell us what the conditions and ingredients for life was like right back when the Earth itself was formed and whether we owe asteroids like Ryugu, thanks to having these ingredients that give us life here and it’s all going to revealed in that pinch of an asteroid.

Rebecca Maddern: [Laughs] Alan and Karen, thank you very much for joining us this morning. Good morning.

Karen Andrews: Take care.