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Japan prepares new mission to explore asteroid

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Aug 30, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—Little more than two years ago, in June 2010, one of the most astonishing space missions of recent times ended when Japan's Hayabusa mission landed samples of an asteroid in the Australian outback.

The successful outcome had beaten all the odds. The robot probe suffered engine failures, a loss of fuel and communication breakdowns on its seven-year, six billion kilometre trip to explore an asteroid called Itokawa.

But the drama of the mission, and its triumph over adversity, inspired the nation. Now Japan's space agency JAXA is planning a new mission, Hayabusa 2, to land on another asteroid and look for clues as to how life on Earth began.

The latest issue of Physics World, which carries a special supplement about physics in Japan, tells how the first Hayabusa was welcomed like a prodigal son by the nation's people. Tens of thousands watched on the Internet as it came home, streaking through the night sky over the South Pacific.

And more than 100,000 people queued to see as the capsule recovered was taken on a tour of Japan. By some miracle, it had accidentally collected some specks of asteroid dust despite failing to fire bullets that were intended to collect samples.

Hayabusa 2 will be launched in 2014 on a mission to touch down on its target asteroid, labelled 1999 JU3, in mid-2018. It will then return to Earth in 2020, hopefully with samples for scientists to examine.

As soon as Hayabusa 2 reaches the asteroid, it will fire fingertip-sized bullets into its surface and collect the fragments blasted out. After moving to a safe distance, it will then detonate an impactor module, which will fire a 2 kg projectile into the asteroid, creating a crater 2.7 metres across.

Artist's impression of hayabusa 2

An artist's impression of Hayabusa 2 probing the asteroid. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita Images/JAXA

Hayabusa 2 will then return to the crater to collect what should be pristine samples from the earliest days of the Solar System, unexposed to space weather and solar radiation.

Space scientists believe that the asteroid may have preserved water and amino acids that will support the theory that asteroids and comets were instrumental in bringing life to Earth.

Shogo Tachibana, a principal investigator for Hayabusa 2, said: "We're not saying that we can find the origin of life on Earth. Rather that asteroids preserve the history of the very early solar system."