Japanese spacecraft lands on asteroid to collect samples

Tokyo: Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft on Friday landed on the surface of an asteroid located 340 million km fromthe Earth to collect space-rock samples, a significant step in a complex mission to study the origin of life. The probe touched down on Ryugu’s surface at 7.49 a.m., according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Hayabusa2 travelled for over three years before landing and is scheduled to return to Earth at the end of 2020 with samples collected from the asteroid, Efe news reported.

JAXA scientists were following the developments from the mission control centre in Kanagawa, southwest of Tokyo. The landing took place from an altitude of 20 km, where the probe had been circling the asteroid since last June. Its descent began on Thursday afternoon. In a press conference in Tokyo, mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa expressed his “relief” at the successful landing, which, in his opinion, marked a new beginning for planetary science. Yuichi Tsuda, another manager of the mission, said the landing was carried out optimally.

Experts of Japan’s aerospace agency called Hayabusa2’s landing a groundbreaking feat owing to the remoteness of the asteroid and the technical difficulties involved. Japan is the only country until now to have brought back materials from a celestial body other than the Moon through the first Hayabusa mission in 2010. After landing, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft fired a projectile made of the metal tantalum at the surface of the Ryugu asteroid to create an artificial crater and extract materials.

The rocky surface and low gravitational force of the asteroid hugely complicated the manoeuver, Japanese scientists said. This forced to delay the probe’s landing, which was initially scheduled for October 2018. The signals sent by Hayabusa2 indicated that the samples of the materials were successfully collected although this could only be confirmed once the rover returns to Earth, said JAXA Research Director Takashi Kubota.

It is believed that the rocks on Ryugu contain traces of coal and water formed during the birth of our Solar System about 4.6 billion years ago, which could provide clues about the origins of the Solar System and life on Earth, the report said. The probe also sent three small rovers on Ryugu in 2018 with the aim of collecting additional samples and is scheduled to make more landings before starting its journey back to Earth. Asteroid Ryugu is about 900 metres in diameter and slightly cubic in shape. Like other minor planets, it is considered to be among the oldest bodies in the Solar System.

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