TOKYO – Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft landed on Friday on the surface of an asteroid located 340 million kilometers from the 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 am, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA.
JAXA scientists are following the developments from the mission control center in Kanagawa, southwest of Tokyo.
Hayabusa2 traveled for over three years before landing, and is scheduled to return to Earth at the end of 2020 with samples collected from the asteroid.
In a press conference in Tokyo, mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa expressed his “relief” at the successful landing, which, in his opinion, marks a new beginning for planetary science.
Yuichi Tsuda, another manager of the mission, said the landing was carried out optimally.
Hayabusa2’s landing is a groundbreaking feat owing to the remoteness of the asteroid and the technical difficulties involved, according to experts of Japan’s aerospace agency.
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 this maneuver, said Japanese scientists. This forced to delay the probe’s landing, which was initially scheduled for October 2018.
The signals sent by Hayabusa2 indicate that the samples of the materials have been successfully collected although this can only be confirmed once the rover returns to Earth, JAXA Research Director Takashi Kubota explained.
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.
Hayabusa2’s landing comes after traveling 3.2 billion kilometers around the Sun in an elliptical orbit for over 3 years and after reaching the asteroid in June last year. The probe remained suspended since then around 20 kilometers from its surface.
The probe also sent three small rovers on Ryugu last year with the aim of collecting additional samples and is scheduled to make more landings before starting its journey back to Earth.
Ryugu – named after a magical palace under the sea which figures in Japanese folklore – is around 900 meters in diameter with a slightly cubical shape and is considered among the oldest bodies of the solar system.
The Japanese space agency hopes the expedition to Ryugu yields better results than the first Hayabusa probe, which carried out another mission between 2003 and 2010 to take samples from a younger asteroid, located closer to the Earth.
The project was completed with partial success after facing several technical glitches and delays since the probe managed to collect some particles from the asteroid despite the failure of its system to extract samples directly from the surface.
In a similar mission, the United States’ space agency (NASA) launched in September 2016 the Osiris-Rex probe to asteroid Bennu which is hoped to return to Earth in 2023 with samples.