A Japanese probe, the Hayabusa 2, launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center Tuesday evening on a mission to find the origins of life on Earth. The launch of the probe had been twice postponed due to inclement weather, but the Japanese probe has now successfully launched and is on course to intercept an asteroid. Before landing on the asteroid’s surface to deploy the explosives necessary to blast out a crater, the probe will map the entire surface of the asteroid. Once the probe has detonated the explosives, it will collect the resulting debris from the asteroid to be analyzed. Asteroids are believed by the Japanese scientists to have formed at the birth of the solar system and it is believed that this particular asteroid, 1999 JU3, holds the carbon compounds that were essential to the formation of life on Earth. The Times Live reports that the Japanese scientists estimate that the probe will touch down with the asteroid in the middle months of 2018 and, once the mission has been completed, will return to Earth in 2020.
“Scientists want to get materials from inside of the asteroid,” project manager Hitoshi Kuninaka said. “That is a very difficult operation. Once we release the impactor, it will be ignited about 40 minutes later. We cannot stop that ignition, so before the ignition, the spacecraft will do an escape maneuver to the other side of the asteroid (to) avoid serious damage. I think that is one of the most difficult operations we have ever done.”
Once the rocket carrying the probe left Earth’s atmosphere, a second rocket on a thirty minute delay shot the probe out on a trajectory that will bring it back to Earth in December of 2015 for a fly around Earth’s orbit that will boost the probe’s velocity, enabling it to rendezvous with asteroid 1999 JU3 in the summer months of 2018, reports CBS News. The asteroid, six tenths of a mile across with a seven hour and 38 minute rotation, is believed to be rich in the carbon compounds and water ice that are necessary to all life on Earth. While flying in formation with the asteroid, the Japanese probe will conduct extensive tests, utilizing a number of spectrometers and cameras to map the asteroid’s surface and document its general characteristics. Meanwhile, the probe will also deploy four landers to conduct far more extensive tests of asteroid 1999 JU3.
“Philae is about 100 kilograms, while MASCOT is only about 10 kilograms (22 pounds),” Kuninaka said. “It’s a very small landing machine, but it is packed with instrumentation. One instrument is a spectroscopic microscope. It will take an image from the surface of the asteroid and make very precise measurements. It also has a thermal imager, a manipulator, and so on. We expect very exciting scientific data from MASCOT.”
The Hayabusa 2 probe will build on data retrieved from the initial Hayabusa probe, which returned in June of 2010 with samples collected from the Itokawa asteroid. Following several glitches on that mission, Hayabusa 2 was improved with more powerful ion engines, more sophisticated communications equipment, and with greater care given to backup systems. NASA’s Deep Space Network will provide additional communications support.
Read about the European Space Agency’s Venus Express probe.