A Japanese spacecraft has successfully touched down on an asteroid some 280 million kilometres from the Earth, on a mission to collect material that could provide clues about the origin of life and the solar system.
Data from the probe, Hayabusa2, showed changes in speed and direction, indicating it had landed on the distant Ryugu asteroid and was blasting back to its orbiting position, officials from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said on Thursday.
A live webcast of the control room showed dozens of JAXA staff members nervously monitoring data before the touchdown before exploding into applause after receiving a signal from the probe, Hayabusa2, that it had landed.
— HAYABUSA2@JAXA (@haya2e_jaxa) February 21, 2019
Japan‘s spacecraft was due to fire a bullet at the asteroid to stir up the surface matter, which the probe will then collect for analysis back on the Earth.
The asteroid is thought to contain relatively large amounts of organic matter and water from some 4.6bn years ago when the solar system was born.
Hayabusa2 will eventually fire an “impactor” to blast out material from underneath Ryugu’s surface, allowing the collection of “fresh” materials unexposed to millennia of wind and radiation.
Scientists hope those samples may provide answers to some fundamental questions about life and the universe, including whether elements from space helped give rise to life on Earth.
After the landing, the probe was to return to its orbit above Ryugu, with further touchdowns planned for later in the year.
Communication with Hayabusa2 is cut off at times because its antennae are not always pointed towards Earth and it could take several more days to confirm the bullet was actually fired to allow the collection of samples.
Photos of Ryugu – which means “Dragon Palace” in Japanese and refers to a castle at the bottom of the ocean in an ancient Japanese tale – show an asteroid shaped a bit like a spinning top with a rough surface.
The mission has not been completely plain sailing and the probe’s landing was originally scheduled for last year.
But it was pushed back after surveys found the asteroid’s surface was more rugged than initially thought, forcing JAXA to take more time to find a suitable landing site.
The Hayabusa2 mission, with a price tag of around 30 billion yen ($270m), was launched in December 2014 and is scheduled to return to Earth with its samples in 2020.
Hayabusa2 observes the surface of the asteroid with its camera and sensing equipment but has also dispatched two tiny MINERVA-II rover robots as well as the French-German robot MASCOT to help surface observation.
Scientists are already receiving data from these probes deployed on the surface of the asteroid.
At about the size of a large fridge, Hayabusa2 is equipped with solar panels and is the successor to JAXA’s first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa – Japanese for falcon.
That probe returned from a smaller, potato-shaped, asteroid in 2010 with dust samples despite various setbacks during its epic seven-year Odyssey and was hailed as a scientific triumph.