The Hayabusa-2, a Japanese spacecraft, has touched down on an asteroid in an attempt to collect a sample of rock from the surface. The Hayabusa-2 spacecraft successfully nabbed bits of the 3,000-foot-wide (900 meters) asteroid Ryugu today (February 21; February 22 Japan time), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) officials announced.
The spacecraft reached asteroid Ryugu in June 2018 after a three-and-a-half-year journey from Earth. It is expected to return to Earth with the rocky material it has cached in 2020.
During sample collection, the spacecraft was set to approach the 1km-wide asteroid with an instrument called the sampler horn. On touchdown, a 5g projectile made of the metal tantalum should have been fired into the rocky surface at 300m/s. The particles kicked up by the impact should be caught by the sampler horn., as reported by BBC.
Hayabusa2 spiraled down to Ryugu's surface, fired a 0.2-ounce (5 grams) tantalum "bullet" into the boulder-strewn rock at close range, and collected pieces of the ejected material using its specialized "sampling horn," JAXA officials said during a press conference this evening.
The spacecraft began descending from its "home position" of 20km above the asteroid's surface in the early hours of 21 February (GMT) - several hours later than planned. However, controllers said they would slightly increase the speed of descent down to 5 km so that the original touchdown time was not affected.
Ryugu belongs to a particularly primitive type of space rock known as a C-type. The near-Earth asteroid (NEA) is a relic left over from the early days of our Solar System.
Hayabusa-2 has already dropped a small, reflective, beanbag-like "target marker" on to Ryugu. This was used as a guide as the spacecraft descends to the rough surface of the asteroid. Controllers were aiming for the centre of a circle, some 6m in diameter, located about 4-5m away from the target marker.
Hayabusa2, about the size of a large fridge and equipped with solar panels, is the successor to JAXA’s first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa, which is Japanese for falcon.
The Hayabusa2 mission, which costs around 30 billion yen ($260 million), was launched in December 2014 and will return to Earth with its samples in 2020.
Photos of Ryugu—which means “Dragon Palace” in Japanese, a castle at the bottom of the ocean in an ancient Japanese tale—show an asteroid shaped a bit like a spinning top with a rough surface.
By collecting samples from it, scientists hope to answer some fundamental questions about life and the universe, including whether elements from space helped give rise to life on Earth.