By Jonathan O’Callaghan
Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft has successfully landed on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu, a historic moment in space exploration that could provide fascinating details on the origins of life on Earth.
At 7:49 am local time in Japan the spacecraft touched down on Ryugu, having descended from a stable orbit about 20 kilometers above the surface. Taking place some 310 million kilometers from Earth—well past the point where even communication at light-speed is too slow for real-time control—the entire descent was automated, and took about 23 hours. As it gently contacted the surface, the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft should have had a closing speed of just seven centimeters per second. If all proceeded according to plan, a meter-long sampling arm successfully fired a bulletlike projectile into the surface, causing up to 0.1 gram of material to be collected in a sample capsule to be transported back to Earth in late 2020.
The spacecraft took images before, during and after the attempted sample collection, which will be the only way to know whether the mechanism has been successful. After leaving the surface, Hayabusa 2 took about half a day to return to its home position above the asteroid. “This is really exciting, because this is the first time in history that we [may have] got a sample of a carbonaceous asteroid,” says Patrick Michel from the Côte d’Azur Observatory in France, a co-investigator on the mission.
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