Hayabusa-2 will deliver one hundred milligrams of particles from the Ryugu asteroid.
After six years in space, Japanese probe Hayabusa-2 returns home, but only on a visit, to provide valuable asteroid samples, before embarking on a new mission.
This refrigerator-sized spacecraft, launched in December 2014, landed on an asteroid about 300 million kilometers from Earth and collected materials.
But their work is not done yet: scientists from Japan’s space agency (Jaxa) plan to extend their mission for more than ten years, with their sights set on two new asteroids.
Before this, Hayabusa-2 must dispense one hundred milligrams of particles from the Ryugu asteroid – a “dragon palace” in Japanese – that will provide, or so scientists hope, clues about the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago .
These materials could explain “how matter is scattered in the solar system, why it exists in the asteroid, and how it is connected to Earth,” project leader Yuichi Tsuda told reporters.
The samples, collected during the mission’s two crucial stages last year, are in a capsule that will separate from Hayabusa-2 about 220,000 kilometers above Earth and then collapse in the South Australian desert early Sunday.
“Maybe we can get substances that will give us clues about the birth of a planet and the origin of life,” mission head Makoto Yoshiwaka told the press.
Protected from sunlight and radiation inside the capsule, the samples will be recovered, treated and then shipped by air to Japan.
Half of the material will be shared between Jaxa, NASA and international organizations, and the rest will be retained for future study as analytical technology develops.
“The probe is now in very good condition,” Yuichi Tsuda declared this Friday, Dec. 4, calling his return “an extraordinary event in the history of man.”
After despatching its samples, Hayabusa-2 will make a series of orbits around the Sun over about six years to record data on dust in interplanetary space and observe exoplanets.
The probe will then approach its first target in July 2026. Although it will remain some distance from the 2001 CC21 asteroid, scientists hope it will be able to photograph it “passing at high speed.”
Hayabusa-2 will then aim towards its main target: 1998 KY26, a spherical asteroid with a diameter of only 30 meters. When the probe arrives in July 2031, it will be about 300 million km from Earth.
This lens presents significant challenges, especially as it pivots quickly, rotating at its axis about every ten minutes.
Hayabusa-2 will observe and photograph the asteroid, but is unlikely to land on it and collect other samples, as it probably won’t have enough fuel to bring them to Earth.
However, moving to the asteroid will already be a feat, said Seiichiro Watanabe, a project scientist for this probe and professor of planetary at Nagoya University.
There is a risk to extending its mission, especially the degradation of probe equipment in deep space, but it also offers a unique and relatively cost-effective way to continue investigations.
The probe is the successor to JAXA’s first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa, meaning “peregrine falcon” in Japanese. In 2010, this probe brought back dust samples from a smaller, potato-shaped asteroid after a seven-year odyssey, celebrated as a scientific achievement.