Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe successfully touches down on asteroid

Supplied computer graphic shows image of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's asteroid explorer Hayabusa 2 landing on the Ryugu asteroid.[Photo courtesy of JAXA]

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TOKYO, Feb 22, 2019, Kyodo News. Japan’s Hayabusa2 space probe successfully touched down Friday on a distant asteroid, the nation’s space agency said, beginning the next phase of a mission aimed at discovering new insights into the origin of life and the evolution of the solar system, reported the Kyodo.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said it received a signal from Hayabusa2 showing it touched down on the Ryugu asteroid located 340 million kilometers from Earth, though it will need a few days to confirm whether the first surface samples were collected as planned.

The spacecraft is designed to fire a small projectile when the tip of a cylindrical horn protruding from its body touches Ryugu’s surface, creating an artificial crater that allows materials from below to be collected.

“We have executed a complete (touchdown),” JAXA Research Director Takashi Kubota told reporters as other members at the mission control center rejoiced at the signals arriving from the probe. JAXA also confirmed Hayabusa2 has fired a projectile.

The asteroid is believed to contain organic substances and water with remnants of the primitive solar system.

To avoid colliding with large, rocky formations on the asteroid’s surface, a landing area of about six meters in diameter was selected instead of the originally planned area of 100 meters in diameter, making navigation of the probe more difficult than initially expected, according to JAXA.

The Hayabusa2 arrived in the vicinity of the asteroid in June after traveling 3.2 billion kilometers on an elliptical orbit around the Sun for more than three years.

The probe is due to return to Earth at the end of 2020 after making multiple touchdowns on the asteroid.

JAXA had postponed the initial touchdown from October due to difficulty in finding a good landing site on the asteroid, which turned out to be rougher than expected.

The diamond-shaped Ryugu asteroid, with an estimated diameter of about 900 meters, travels around the Sun once every 16 months, passing near the orbits of Earth and Mars.

The asteroid is named after an undersea dragon palace in a Japanese fairy tale, where the mythical fisherman Urashima Taro found a treasure chest. Hayabusa, meanwhile, means peregrine falcon in Japanese.

Launched in December 2014 from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan, the roughly 600-kilogram Hayabusa2 had a trouble-free journey to its destination.

Last year, Hayabusa2 successfully released three tiny rovers, each of which is designed to roam the surface of Ryugu to conduct probes.

The agency is hoping to produce an outcome surpassing that of the original Hayabusa asteroid probe, which collected the first-ever samples from an asteroid in space. The first Hayabusa was launched in 2003 and delivered the materials it collected back to Earth in 2010.

It landed twice on the asteroid Itokawa about 300 million kilometers from Earth, having survived a series of technological problems. It failed to deploy its projectile but managed to return with some asteroid particles that became lodged on the probe when it touched down on the surface.

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