Japanese probe travels back to Earth with samples of distant asteroid

Robie de Guzman

Tokyo – Japanese probe Hayabusa2 began its journey back to Earth after collecting samples of a distant asteroid, marking an unprecedented achievement in space exploration, the country’s aerospace agency announced Wednesday.

The probe began maneuvers to leave asteroid Ryugu’s orbit and return to Earth, a distance of 700 million kilometers that would take one year to cover, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) tweeted.

If the probe returns without any setbacks, Hayabusa2 will become the first space mission to bring surface and underground samples from extremely distant celestial bodies, contributing to research into the mysteries of the universe, JAXA said.

On Wednesday at 10:05 local time (1:05 GMT), the probe activated its lithium-ion powered engine to lift itself from its orbital location – some 20 kilometers above the asteroid – and begin its return journey.

JAXA provided details of the operation named “Sayonara Ryugu” (Goodbye Ryugu) on its Twitter account and posted pictures taken by Hayabusa2.

According to JAXA’s plan, the probe will pass over Australia towards the end of 2020 and drop a capsule containing sand and rock samples collected from Ryugu.

Hayabusa2 reached the asteroid in 2018 and made two touchdowns this year, in what have been pioneering missions of high technical complexity.

Maneuvers were aimed at retrieving underground samples from an artificial crater on the surface of the asteroid created by a projectile made of the metal tantalum fired by the spacecraft.

Ryugu is located 340 million kilometers from the Earth and its surface is believed to contain traces of coal and water formed during the birth of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago.

The samples collected by Hayabusa2 could provide clues to the formation of planets and the origin of life. EFE-EPA
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