Japan's Hayabusa2 space explorer reaches asteroid to find signs of life

29 June, 2018, 19:15 | Author: Tara Reeves
  • Asteroid Ryugu

To collect its samples, it will release an "impactor" that will explode above the asteroid, shooting a two-kilogram (four-pound) copper object into the surface to create a crater a few metres in diameter.

Before Hayabusa, NASA's Galileo visited asteroids Gaspra and Ida, and the agency's NEAR Shoemaker traveled to Eros. The Ryugu is spinning about 7.5 hours as compared to other Type C asteroids that spin around 3 hours.

That probe returned from a smaller, potato-shaped, asteroid in 2010 with dust samples despite various setbacks during its epic seven-year Odyssey and was hailed as a scientific triumph.

According to the agency, the 600-kg Hayabusa2, which was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan in December 2014, has experienced no problems throughout its journey totaling 3.2 billion km.

The image, consisting of two photos of the asteroid said to be separated by 13 minutes, was released on the guitarist's website BrianMay.com and was described as the "very first (official!) stereo close-up of Asteroid 162173 RYUGU". In 2006, the first Hayabusa craft managed to touch down on the surface of the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa three times - revealing that instead of being a chunk of solid rock, the asteroid was essentially "a bunch of rubble being held together by shared gravity", as NPR's Joe Palca reported.

"From a distance, Ryugu initially appeared round, then gradually turned into a square before becoming a attractive shape similar to fluorite [a vibrant mineral sometimes used in jewelry]", project manager Yuichi Tsuda said in the JAXA statement.

Beneath their desolate surface, asteroids are believed to contain a rich treasure-trove of information about the formation of the solar system billions of years ago.

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Deep within the Ruygu, the researchers are expecting to find large amounts of water and organic matter, particularly hydrated minerals.

"In other words, arriving at Ryugu is the same as aiming at a 6-centimeter target in Brazil from Japan", the agency said. On Tuesday, scientists successfully used the Lidar to measure the distance from Hayabusa to the asteroid for the first time. "Touchdown means we get the surface material", Yoshikawa told the BBC.

Computer graphics show a small carry-on impactor firing a projectile into the surface of the Ryugu asteroid and the Hayabusa 2 probe collecting dislodged samples. For one thing, the asteroid's shape is fairly irregular, which makes for a complicated landing, said Tsuda.

'On the other hand, there is a peak in the vicinity of the equator and a number of large craters, which makes the selection of the landing points both interesting and hard'.

This is why Hayabusa 2 will be spending a couple of months looking for a good landing site. Hayabusa 2 is expected to return to Earth with its samples in late 2020.

The spacecraft will also deploy three rovers that don't have wheels but can hop around on the surface of the asteroid to conduct probes.

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