Space technology has advanced so much, that not only can we do these missions, but now we are able to do more of them, and more often.
Three weeks ago, a small, 40-cm space capsule, which was built by the Japanese Space Exploration Agency and has travelled more than 5 billion kilometres and contains bits of rock from an asteroid, landed in the South Australian desert.
Called Hayabusa2, it reached the asteroid Ryugu in 2018. It was in orbit around the asteroid for about a year. During that time, it went down to the kilometer-size surface twice to grab rock. During one of these times before it went down, it ignited nearly 5kg of explosive and shot a copper projectile into the asteroid to blow a hole in it.
Now back on Earth, the rocks will make their way to labs to be analyzed. The samples will help us understand more about asteroids, and the beginning of the solar system. Asteroids like Ryugu also are rich in water and organic material, like amino acids. Some theories suggest asteroids like Ryugu may have brought the ingredients to start life to Earth.
Having released the sample capsule, the rest of the probe is continuing off into space, with more fuel onboard to visit more asteroids. It is a remarkable piece of technology.
That is not the only thing that has returned to Earth recently. On December 1, the China National Space Administration's Chang'e 5 probe landed on the Moon. After landing, it drilled down a couple of metres into the surface, grabbing as much rock as possible. Last week, the probe touched down in Mongolia with its samples.
This has made China only the third country to land on the Moon, and return back to the Earth with rocks and samples. The only other two, the US with its Apollo program and the USSR with the Luna rovers, last did it more than 40 years ago.
And more missions are on the way. NASA's Osiris-Rex just finished at the asteroid Bennu, where it went down and also grabbed rocks, and it is headed for Utah in 2023.
The knowledge we gain from these missions will be astronomical. At the same time, space technology has advanced so much, that not only can we do these missions, but now we are able to do more of them, and more often.
We'll need that technology to increase if we want to get back to the Moon and stay there. Space resource utilization will be key for future space exploration. Currently taking everything with us is too inefficient. It is hard to load up a rocket with all your supplies, because as you add more weight, you need more fuel. Airplanes rarely bring fuel on board for their return trip - that is not efficient. It is better (in most cases) to re-fuel and make your return trip. That is what we are aiming to do in space.
It is much easier to use resources in space, to support space travel. Ice on the Moon can be used to support humans and to be used for rocket fuel. Asteroids are both rich in ice and metals. We will be seeing a lot more missions landing and extracting resources, and we'll see Australia playing a bigger and bigger part in these missions, like we did this month.
- Brad Tucker is an astrophysicist and cosmologist at Mount Stromlo Observatory, and the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU