Japanese Hayabusa 2 space probe examining origins of life arrives at asteroid | News | DW | 27.06.2018
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Japanese Hayabusa 2 space probe examining origins of life arrives at asteroid

A spacecraft on a mission to study the origins of life and the solar system has arrived at an asteroid. Japan's Hayabusa 2 will collect samples before returning to Earth.

A Japanese space probe seeking to learn about the origins of the solar system and life has arrived at an asteroid 300 million kilometers (186 million miles) from Earth, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said on Wednesday.

The Hayabusa 2 had blasted off in December 2014 on a 3.2 billion-kilometer journey (equivalent to roughly 80,000 trips around the Earth's circumference) to the asteroid Ryugu and is now orbiting it at a distance of 20 kilometers. 

If all goes as planned, the 600-kilogram spacecraft will spend the next 18 months mapping the surface of the asteroid, which is about 1-kilometer in diameter, and conduct three short touch-and-go landings to collect samples.

Read more: Protecting Earth from an asteroid strike - what can we do?

The spacecraft carries three rovers as well as a French-German-made lander to study the surface. It will also use a "collision device" to create a small artificial crater to collect fresh samples from under the surface.

The Hayabusa 2, named after the peregrine falcon bird of prey, will then return to Earth with samples at the end of 2020.

In photos JAXA released earlier this week, the asteroid can be seen with craters, rocks and varying geographical features, including a peak at the equator. The shape of the asteroid was revealed to be similar to an abacus bead, rather than circular or square as originally thought.

Read more: Scientists discover what Uranus smells like

"This form of Ryugu is scientifically surprising and also poses a few engineering challenges," Hayabusa 2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda wrote on Monday.

Asteroid Ryugu (picture-alliance/AP Photo/JAXA)

An image taken on June 24, 2018, of the asteroid Ryugu shows it has an abacus bead shape marked by a surface with craters, rocks and other geographical features.

The shape of the asteroid means that Tsuda "expect(s) the direction of the gravitational force on the wide areas of the asteroid surface to not point directly down."

The Hayabusa 2 is a C-type primordial asteroid formed during the beginning of the solar system. Scientists believe it contains organic and hydrated minerals, the collection of which may provide insight into the formation of the Earth as well as life.

Read more: NASA rover finds organic matter on Mars

"Minerals and seawater which form the Earth as well as materials for life are believed to be strongly connected in the primitive solar nebula in the early solar system, thus we expect to clarify the origin of life by analyzing samples acquired from a primordial celestial body such as a C-type asteroid to study organic matter and water in the solar system and how they coexist while affecting each other," JAXA said.

An earlier Hayabusa mission from 2003 to 2010 was unable to collect as many samples as hoped from a different type of asteroid, but still made history by being the first mission to bring back samples from an asteroid.

cw/msh (AP, dpa, Reuters)

 

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