A Japanese spacecraft started its journey towards Earth after investigating an asteroid for a year and a half. It is set to fly for one year, drop off samples in the Australian desert, and then continue exploring space.
Japan's Hayabusa2 probe has left Ryugu asteroid and started its 300-million-kilometer (186-million-mile) journey through space towards Earth, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency confirmed on Wednesday.
The spacecraft is bringing back a capsule with samples of Ryugu soil, taken both from and below the asteroid's surface. The probe had touched down on Ryugu twice and also bombarded it in order to gather subsurface material. It will continue to take pictures of the object as it slowly moves away from its modest gravitational pull. After moving away to a distance of 65 kilometers (40 miles), the device will fire its thrusters and start a one-year flight towards our planet.
Japanese scientists said the mission had exceeded their expectations.
"I'm feeling half-sad, half-determined to do our best to get the probe home," project manager Yuichi Tsuda told reporters.
"Ryugu has been at the heart of our everyday life for the past year and a half," he added.
Be right back
The Japanese space agency said that the probe is set to drop off a capsule with samples into Australian desert once it gets near Earth in 2020. Details are still being negotiated with the Australian government, Tsuda said.
The probe is bringing back "carbon and organic matter" that help humanity understand "how the matter is scattered around the Solar System, why it exists on the asteroid and how it is related to Earth," according to Tsuda.
However, the probe itself is not scheduled to land. After it flies by and drops off the capsule, Japanese researchers hope to send it off to a new destination; possibly another asteroid.
"The team has just started to study what can be done [after dropping off the capsule]," but there are still no concrete plans about a new target, Tsuda said.
dj/msh (AP, AFP)