Six years and 6 billion kilometers later, Japan’s Hayabusa2 prepares to bring home a shipment 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 fantasy far from Europhobe.

Six years and three days after starting its pilot mission, the Japanese spacecraft will drop a capsule on the Australian outback carrying primitive meteor fragments that scientists believe may shed light on the formation of the solar system and the origins of life.

By the time it reaches high skies over Woomera, South Australia, in the early hours of Sunday, the probe will have completed a round trip of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) that included two short stations in The surface of a moving asteroid.

The unmanned vehicle will launch the capsule from an altitude of about 220,000 km (136,700 mi). Japan The Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) said.

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

The probe reached its fixed position above the asteroid – named Ryugu after the undersea dragon palace in a Japanese fairytale – in June 2018 after traveling 3.2 billion kilometers in an elliptical orbit around the sun for more than three years.

One of the critical stages of the mission came in February last year, when it was for a short period It landed on Ryugu They launched a small pellet of tantalum onto the asteroid’s surface to raise the dust to collect it, before returning to its position.

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Five months later, it achieved first place in the world when it landed a second time Collect rock and soil fragments From under the surface of a 4.6 billion-year-old asteroid.

Jaxa These subsurface samples are thought to contain carbon and organic matter that, after being protected from space radiation and other environmental factors, are in the same condition they were in when the solar system was formed.

An image of the asteroid Ryugu in space, made available by JAXA
An image of the asteroid Ryugu in space, made available by JAXA Photo: Jaxa Bulletin / EPA

Makoto Yoshikawa, Jaxa’s Hayabusa2 Project Mission Manager, said the scientists are particularly interested in analyzing the organic matter in the Ryugu samples.

“Organic matter is the origin of life on Earth, but we still don’t know where it came from,” Yoshikawa said in a press release. “We hope to find evidence of the origin of life on Earth by analyzing the details of the organic matter brought back by Hayabusa2.”

Protected by a heat shield, the capsule will turn into a fireball as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere at an altitude of 200 km above the surface of the Earth. About 10 kilometers above the ground, a parachute will open, and if all goes as planned, the capsule will send signals indicating its position on the ground.

Jaxa experts, who arrived in Woomera last month, set up satellite dishes in several places to capture the signals, while the Australian Void The agency and the Ministry of Defense will stand ready to assist in the search and retrieval mission.

Without local help, Yoshikawa said, searching for the capsule, which is only 40 cm in diameter, “would be very difficult.”

However, Hayabausa2 will not be finished working at this point. After launching the capsule, it will head to another distant asteroid, called 1998KY26, on a mission expected to last a decade.

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