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Asteroid Hunter: Japan’s Hayabusa 2 Spacecraft Prepares to Conquer Asteroid Ryugu

Dec 09, 2016 04:20 AM EST
JPN: Japan Launches H2A Rocket
The Japanese space agency’s Hayabusa 2 gears up for a trip to asteroid Ryugu to bring back asteroid samples to Earth for further studies.
(Photo : Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency/Getty Images)

Japan's asteroid hunter Hayabusa 2 gears up for its arrival on Asteroid Ryugu in 2018.

Upon arrival on the asteroid, the Japanese space agency's (JAXA) Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will collect samples to bring home to Earth to learn more about ancient building blocks of life on the planet.

Hayabusa 2 was launched in December 2014 and would arrive on asteroid Ryugu in June or July 2018. Once there, it will drop several tiny landers on Ryugu's surface to collect asteroid materials. However, a lot of engineering and precision will be needed to make this happen, Seeker reports. As Hayabusa 2 moves towards its target, scientists on Earth are already looking at Ryugu to learn about its properties.

"Before you can send an interplanetary mission to a small body, it is important to know its orbit with the best possible accuracy, but you also have to know the object's properties," Thomas Mueller, co-investigator for Hayabusa 2's thermal infrared imager instrument, told Seeker.

Astronomers are conducting a study -- published on arXiv and accepted in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics -- based on data from the European Herschel Space Observatory and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The scientists tried to map the rotation of the object using its light curve -- the change in light as seen from Earth -- which led to estimating its spin and surface composition.

According to Mueller, the latest research will help engineers adjust their instrument settings, do risk assessments and develop plans for what Hayabusa 2 will do upon arriving on asteroid Ryugu.

Ryugu is not JAXA's first asteroid destination. In September 2005, Hayabusa -- the predecessor of Hayabusa 2 -- also did the same on asteroid Itokawa, Cosmos Magazine reports. The spacecraft started mapping the asteroid's shape, spin, density and composition from around 20 kilometers away.

However, the first Hayabusa mission had been plagued with problems. Its mini-lander MINERVA (Micro/Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid) was deployed at a wrong time, causing the lander to escape the asteroid's gravitational pull and tumble away in space. Fortunately, some Itokawa samples arrived successfully on Earth.

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