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Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Japanese space probe Hayabusa-2 returns to Earth with samples of an asteroid


Yesterday, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa-2 left its orbit around a distant asteroid and is now heading for the Earth after an exemplary mission. The latter will yield important samples, which could help scientists solve some of the mysteries about the origins of the Solar System.

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For the spacecraft, the long return journey began Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, and is expected to reach Earth "by the end of 2020," said Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

"  We hope that Hayabusa-2 will provide us with new scientific knowledge, " said project director Yuichi Tsuda. The probe will bring back to Earth "carbon and organic matter", which will provide data on "how matter is dispersed in the solar system, why it exists on the asteroid and how it is related to the Earth", Tsuda added.

Below: The images taken by the Hayabusa-2 probe as it leaves the orbit of the asteroid are also displayed in the control room. This is a camera that continues to take scientifically valid photographs, but this time, the pictures were taken for the pleasure of all.



The mission of the Japanese space probe (the size of a large fridge) took her to some 300 million kilometers from the Earth, where she was able to analyze and explore the asteroid Ryugu, whose name means "Palace of Dragon "in Japanese. A name referring to a castle at the bottom of the ocean, in an ancient fable.

In April 2019, the Hayabusa-2 space probe launched an "impactor" on the asteroid in order to "stir" materials that had never been exposed to the atmosphere. The probe was then able to collect dust samples from the surface of the asteroid and never exposed to space vacuum so far. A first !

Scientists hope this will provide clues to the nature of the Solar System at birth, about 4.6 billion years ago. " I feel half-sad and half-determined, so we can do our best to bring the probe home. Ryugu has been at the heart of our daily lives for a year and a half ...  "said Tsuda.

The surface of the asteroid Ryugu, photographed in detail by the Hayabusa-2 probe at 64 and 67 meters altitude. Credits: JAXA

Now, the Hayabusa-2 space probe has begun its return to planet Earth. It will be released permanently from the gravity of the asteroid on November 18, and can start at full speed its main engines at the beginning of December.

Tsuda said the six-year mission, whose total cost is around 30 billion yen (about $ 278 million), had exceeded expectations at the scientific level, but he also admitted that his team had to deal with many technical problems. It took three and a half years for the probe to get to the asteroid, but the return trip should be much shorter because now the Earth and the Ryugu asteroid are much closer (because of their respective current positions).

The Hayabusa-2 probe is expected to deposit the collected samples in the southern Australian desert, but "JAXA is negotiating the details of this part of the mission with the Australian government," Tsuda said.

Note that this probe succeeds the first JAXA asteroid explorer, Hayabusa (which means "hawk" in Japanese). The first probe was sent back to Earth with dust samples of a small asteroid in 2010, despite several setbacks during its epic seven-year odyssey, and was hailed as a scientific triumph.

According to the current plan, Hayabusa-2 will continue its journey into space after depositing its capsule containing the samples on Earth, and could even " perform a new exploration of asteroid, " said spokesman JAXA Keiichi Murakami. "  The team has just started to study what could be done (after the probe has deposited the capsule), but there are no concrete plans for a new destination,  " Tsuda said.

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