After 3.5 years of flying through deep space, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa 2 has finally caught up with asteroid Ryugu some 300 million kilometers (about 180 million miles) away from Earth, Phys.org reports.
“We have confirmed the arrival of Hayabusa 2 at the Ryugu asteroid,” officials from the Japan Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) said on Wednesday.
Launched in December 2014, the unmanned Hayabusa 2 spacecraft has now settled into an observational point nearly 20 kilometers (12 miles) above the asteroid’s surface, from where it will begin its scientific mission in about two months’ time.
This is Japan’s second mission to explore an asteroid, after its predecessor, Hayabusa (which means “falcon” in Japanese), returned to Earth in 2010 carrying samples from asteroid Itokawa.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the Japanese space probe set out on its almost four-year journey to investigate the origin of life on Earth. While looking for answers so far away from home might seem a bit puzzling, the role of the Ryugu asteroid is instrumental in this task.
What We Know About Asteroid Ruygu So Far
This is because this ancient space rock is believed to date back to the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago, notes the BBC.
In fact, Japanese scientists are convinced that the 900-meter-wide (3,000 feet) asteroid, made up of leftover material from when our planets were first created, is chock-full of chemical compounds that may have ignited the spark of life on Earth.
Deep within the Ruygu, the researchers are expecting to find large amounts of water and organic matter, particularly hydrated minerals. Known as a type-C asteroid, Ruygu is believed to be rich in carbon and water ice, the building blocks of life.
Named after an undersea castle from an ancient Japanese tale, the asteroid’s moniker translates as “Dragon Palace.” But its shape looks more like a spinning top and has even been likened to a “cosmic diamond” by the BBC.
As the spacecraft came closer and closer to its target, the Optical Navigation Camera — Telescopic (ONC-T) mounted on the Hayabusa 2 snapped fresh photos of the Ruygu asteroid, revealing its shape and estimated size.
“The shape of the asteroid looks like a spinning top (called a “Coma” in Japanese), with the equatorial part wider than the poles. This form is seen in many small asteroids that are rotating at high speed,” Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for the Hayabusa 2 mission, said in an earlier JAXA news release.
Commenting on a set of ONC-T images taken on June 17 from a distance of 330-240 kilometers (205-150 miles) of the asteroid’s surface, mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa, from Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said that Ruygu looks surprisingly similar to the Bennu asteroid — a potentially dangerous 500-meter (310-mile) space rock that NASA will be investigating with the OSIRIS-REx probe come December.
Subsequent photos taken on June 24, from a distance of around 40 kilometers (about 25 miles), showed that Ryugu actually looks like a cube-shaped mineral called a fluorite, Tsuda revealed in a more recent JAXA news release.
“From a distance, Ryugu initially appeared round, then gradually turned into a square before becoming a beautiful shape similar to fluorite [known as the ‘firefly stone’ in Japanese].”
The Hayabusa 2 Mission
According to JAXA, studying this intriguing asteroid could help “to clarify the origin of life” and might lead to important clues into how living organisms first appeared on our planet.
The plan is to retrieve samples from Ryugu over the next 18 months by conducting three touch-and-go landings on the asteroid’s blazing hot surface. The first touchdown is slated to take place this fall, in September or October, while the final one is scheduled for next spring, in April or May.
“At first, we will study very carefully the surface features. Then we will select where to touch down. Touchdown means we get the surface material,” Yoshikawa told the BBC.
In order to collect samples from underneath the asteroid’s surface, the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will be blasting Ryugu with a two-kilogram (four-pound) copper projectile sometime before the final landing. Known as an “impactor,” this projectile is meant to blow a small crater of the asteroid’s surface, which will enable the space probe to gather fresh samples that haven’t been exposed to radiation.
But getting the job done won’t be easy, FOX News points out. For one thing, the asteroid’s shape is fairly irregular, which makes for a complicated landing, said Tsuda.
“First of all, the rotation axis of the asteroid is perpendicular to the orbit. This fact increases the degrees of freedom for landing and the rover decent operations. On the other hand, there is a peak in the vicinity of the equator and a number of large craters, which makes the selection of the landing points both interesting and difficult.”
This is why Hayabusa 2 will be spending a couple of months looking for a good landing site.
Aside from the three landings, the Hayabusa 2 mission also includes exploring the asteroid with three MINERVA-II rovers — tiny robots with no wheels, designed to hop around Ryugu’s surface and conduct probes — as well as deploying a French-German lander named Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) to scout the asteroid’s exterior.
Once all the necessary data has been gathered, the Japanese spacecraft will head back home next December and is expected to return to Earth in 2020.