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Japan's asteroid probe set for final touchdown

China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-07-11 07:38

TOKYO - Japan's Hayabusa2 probe began descending on Wednesday for its final touchdown on a distant asteroid. It aims to collect samples that could shed light on the evolution of the solar system.

"At 9:58 am, we made a 'Go' decision for the Hayabusa2 probe's second touchdown," the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said in a statement. "Currently the probe is working normally."

The probe is expected to touch down on Thursday on the Ryugu asteroid, nearly 300 million kilometers from Earth.

If successful, it will be the second time it has landed on the desolate asteroid as part of a complex mission that has also involved sending rovers and robots down onto the surface.

The mission hopes to collect pristine materials from beneath the surface of the asteroid that could provide insights into what the solar system was like at its birth about 4.6 billion years ago.

To get at those crucial materials, in April an "impactor" was fired from Hayabusa2 toward Ryugu in a risky process that created a crater on the asteroid's surface and stirred up material that had not previously been exposed to the atmosphere.

"This is the second touchdown, but doing a touchdown is a challenge whether it's the first or the second," said Yuichi Tsuda, project manager of Hayabusa2.

Hayabusa2 first touched down in February, when it landed briefly on Ryugu and fired a bullet into the surface to puff up dust for collection, before blasting back to its holding position.

The second touchdown requires special preparations because any problems could mean the probe loses the precious materials already gathered during its first landing.

A photo of the crater taken by Hayabusa2's camera shows that parts of the asteroid's surface are covered with materials that are "obviously different" from the rest of the surface, mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa told reporters.

The probe is expected to make a brief touchdown on an area some 20 meters away from the center of the crater to collect the unidentified materials believed to be "ejecta" from the blast.

"It would be safe to say that extremely attractive materials are near the crater," Tsuda said.

The touchdown will be the last major part of Hayabusa2's mission. When the probe returns to Earth next year, scientists hope to learn more about the history of the solar system.

At about the size of a large refrigerator and powered by solar panels, Hayabusa2 is the successor to the exploration agency's first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa.

Launched in December 2014, the Hayabusa2 mission has a price tag of around 30 billion yen ($270 million) and is scheduled to return to Earth with its samples in 2020.

Afp - Xinhua

Japan's asteroid probe set for final touchdown

(China Daily Global 07/11/2019 page7)

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