After six years and 6 billion km, the Japanese Hayabusa2 is preparing to bring home a cargo of asteroid dust | Japan


The last time Hayabusa2 was seen with the naked eye, Barack Obama was President of the United States and Brexit was a distant Europhobic fantasy.

Six years and three days after the start of its groundbreaking mission, the Japanese spacecraft will drop a capsule over the Australian hinterland containing fragments of pristine asteroids that scientists believe could shed light on the formation of the solar system and its origins. of life.

By the time it reaches the sky over Woomera, South Australia, in the early hours of Sunday, the spacecraft will have made a round trip of about 6 billion km (3.7 billion miles) including two briefs stops at the surface of a movement. asteroid.

The unmanned craft will release the capsule from a height of about 220,000 km (136,700 miles), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) said.

Sunday’s operation will mark the culmination of a 30 billion yen (£ 215 million) mission that began when Hayabusa2, whose name means hawk in Japanese, left the Tanegashima Space Center in the south. western Japan in December 2014.

The probe reached its stationary position above the asteroid – named Ryugu after an underwater dragon palace in a Japanese fairy tale – in June 2018 after traveling 3.2 billion km in an elliptical orbit around the sun for more than three years.

One of the mission’s critical milestones was in February last year, when it briefly landed on Ryugu and fired a tiny tantalum pellet at the asteroid’s surface to stir up dust for collection. , before returning to its holding position.

Five months later, it achieved a world first by landing a second time to collect fragments of rock and earth dislodged below the surface of the 4.6 billion year old asteroid.

Jaxa believes that these underground samples contain carbon and organic matter which, after being shielded from space radiation and other environmental factors, are in the same state as when the solar system was formed.

An image of the surface of asteroid Ryugu, in space, provided by the Japanese space agency JAXA
An image of the surface of asteroid Ryugu, in space, provided by the Japanese space agency JAXA Photograph: Jaxa Handout / EPA

Makoto Yoshikawa, head of the Hayabusa2 project mission to Jaxa, said scientists were particularly interested in analyzing organic matter in Ryugu samples.

“Organic matter is the source of life on Earth, but we still don’t know where it came from,” Yoshikawa said in a briefing. “We hope to find clues to the origin of life on Earth by analyzing the details of the organic material reported by Hayabusa2.”

The capsule, protected by a heat shield, will turn into a fireball when it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere 200 km above the ground. About 10 km above the ground, a parachute will open and, if all goes as planned, the capsule will send out signals indicating its location on the ground.

Jaxa experts, who arrived in Woomera last month, have installed satellite dishes in several locations to pick up the signals, while the Australian Space Agency and the Department of Defense will be on standby to help with the search and search mission. recovery.

Without local assistance, finding the capsule, which is only 40cm in diameter, “would be extremely difficult,” Yoshikawa said.

Hayabausa2’s work will not be finished at this stage, however. After releasing the capsule, it will head to another distant asteroid, named 1998KY26, in a mission expected to last for a decade.


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