Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft has been launched for a six-year mission to a distant asteroid in a bid to retrieve a rock sample and bring it to Earth.
A continuation of Japan’s ground-breaking Hayabusa 1 programme, which saw the first spacecraft in history delivering a piece of an asteroid to Earth, Hayabusa 2 will aim to collect more material than its predecessor to help scientists gain better understanding of asteroid chemistry.
Having formed in the early stages of the evolution of the Solar System, asteroids are believed to hold vital clues to understanding of the origins of life on Earth.
Whereas Hayabusa 1 landed on the 500m-long asteroid Itokawa, Hayabusa 2 heads for the slightly larger body known as 1999 JU3.
Designed and built by Japan’s space agency Jaxa, Hayabusa 2 is a reiteration of the Hayabusa 1 design. The spacecraft is propelled by ion engines and features upgraded navigation and attitude control systems.
It is expected to reach its destination in July 2018 and spend a year and a half surveying the satellite before heading back to Earth in December 2019 with an arrival date set for December 2020.
Before descending upon the asteroid’s surface the probe will scan its surface to create a detailed map. After a touch-down, the probe will use an explosive device to create a crater and uncover pristine material.
The probe, named falcon in Japanese, was launched aboard Japan’s H2A rocket from the country’s spaceport on the Tanegashima island.
Despite its phenomenal success, the mission of the earlier Hayabusa 1, launched in 2003, was marred with difficulties.
First the spacecraft’s photovoltaic cells were damaged by a powerful solar flare, reducing the amount of available electrical power. As a result, the spacecraft slowed down and reached its destination several months later than expected, putting pressure on the scientific teams to speed up the work in order to make the launch window for the return to Earth.
While approaching Itokawa, two of the spacecraft’s reaction wheels failed, limiting the ability of the controllers to command the satellite.
A mini-lander, called Minerva, which Hayabusa was carrying, missed the asteroid and was lost due to a communication error during the landing sequence.
The spacecraft was designed to perform several short touch-downs on the asteroid to collect dust samples, which, unfortunately, didn’t go as planned due to a communication blackout at a Japanese ground station.
A series of fuel leaks then nearly killed the hopes of the Japanese team to see the spacecraft coming back to Earth.
The launch of Hayabusa 2 was postponed for three days due to bad weather in the Tanegashima region.
The spacecraft hopes to follow in the footsteps of the European Space Agency’s comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft, which last month achieved the first ever landing on the surface of a comet.