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Hayabusa2 probe

Japanese space probe begins long journey home from asteroid mission

Image credit: jaxa

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe is heading back from its mission collecting samples from an asteroid that’s around 250 million km from Earth.

Japan's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft first touched down on the asteroid in February with a mission to collect samples that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth.

Asteroids are believed to have formed at the dawn of the solar system and scientists say the asteroid, called Ryugu, may contain organic matter that may have contributed to life on Earth.

If the return trip is completed successfully it will be the first time samples from beneath an asteroid’s surface have been brought back to Earth, a spokeswoman for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said.

During sample collection, the spacecraft approached the 1km-wide asteroid with an instrument called the sampler horn. On touchdown, a 5g ‘bullet’ made of the metal tantalum was fired into the rocky surface at 300m/s.

The aim of the spacecraft was to gather around 10g of the dislodged debris with the sampler horn. Any material collected will be stored onboard the probe until its return to Earth.

The unmanned probe, named after a falcon, began leaving Ryugu last week, but it is still sending images back to Earth. Those observations will be wrapped up today or tomorrow before its main engine is activated for the year-long flight back home, JAXA said.

“This is us bidding farewell to Ryugu,” the spokeswoman said.

Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to return to Earth by the end of 2020. After dropping off a capsule containing the samples, without landing, the probe itself will keep on going and fly away into space, finishing its six-year, 29 billion yen (£205m) mission.

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