Japan space explorer arrives on asteroid to retrieve samples

Asteroid Ryugu

If the retrieval and the return journey are successful, the asteroid material could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth.

Its latest images of Ryugu reveal an odd shape that could make landing on the asteroid more hard than engineers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) had anticipated.

The robotic explorer will spend about two months looking for suitable landing places on the uneven surface. It will stay with the asteroid for 18 months before heading back to Earth with its samples in late 2020.

In the meantime, it is orbiting the 900 metre-diameter (3,000ft) planetary body at a height of about 12 miles (20km).

'From a distance, Ryugu initially appeared round, then gradually turned into a square before becoming a lovely shape similar to fluorite - known as the "firefly stone" in Japanese, ' said Hayabusa Two project manager Dr Yuichi Tsuda.

'First of all, the rotation axis of the asteroid is perpendicular to the orbit, ' Dr Tsuda said. The first touchdown is slated to take place this fall, in September or October, while the final one is scheduled for next spring, in April or May. It will then attempt to land at or near the crater to collect underground material that was blown out of the crater, in addition to the surface material from the earlier touchdowns.

The probe will observe the surface with its camera and sensing equipment but will also drop tiny MINERVA-II rover robots as well as a French-German landing package named Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) for surface observation.

Ryugu is classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid, meaning it has an orbit around the sun that could bring it close to earth and it is of sufficient size to cause significant damage if it hit. As such, they may help explain how Earth evolved, including the formation of oceans and the start of life.

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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. He was later also added as a "science collaborator" for NASA's New Horizons Pluto mission.

Samples obtained from Bennu are expected to return to Earth on the Osiris-Rex in 2023.

This computer graphics image provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows asteroid explorer Hayabusa2 landing on a crater that it made.

Hayabusa 2 will hide on the other side of the asteroid to protect itself during the operation and wait another two to three weeks to make sure any debris that could damage the explorer has cleared.

"I was honoured to have the opportunity to make this very first stereo compilation - not only of Ryugu, but of any C-type asteroid - in history", a message on the site read.

The idea completely changed when Hayabusa2 came within 200 kilometers of the object and took a series of images, giving a close look at its exact shape.

In this August 31, 2014, photo, asteroid explorer Hayabusa2 is displayed to media by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) at its facility in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.

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