In its final planned touchdown, the Hayabusa2 probe landed successfully Thursday on a distant asteroid as part of a mission to collect samples that could shed light on the evolution of the solar system.
The objective of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency probe is to collect subsurface samples from the Ryugu asteroid in order to gain new insights into the origins of life and the development of the solar system, the agency said.
If the mission proves successful, it will be the first time that a space probe has ever taken subsurface samples from an asteroid.
The touchdown was greeted with cheering and applause in the JAXA mission control room, with officials grinning and shaking hands.
JAXA officials said earlier that the probe appeared to have landed successfully, but confirmation came only after Hayabusa2 lifted back up from the asteroid and resumed communications with the control room.
“All of us are relieved to see that the probe has resumed sending data from its antenna, which can send a large amount of data to us,” JAXA spokesman Takayuki Tomobe said. That is a sign that the probe is functioning as it should, he added.
The brief landing Thursday is the second time Hayabusa2 has touched down on the asteroid, which is some 300 million kilometers from Earth.
The complex multiyear mission has also involved sending rovers and robots down to the surface.
The sample targeted this time is a layer of debris believed to have piled up on the surface after the probe created an artificial crater in April by firing a projectile at the asteroid.
Ryugu’s surface has weathered due to the impact of solar winds but the subsurface samples are believed to have materials that can be traced to when the solar system was born some 4.6 billion years ago. These dark-colored samples may possibly contain organic materials and water, according to JAXA.
Hayabusa2 is believed to have touched down on its targeted area measuring 7 meters wide and about 20 meters away from the center of the artificial crater.
Hayabusa2’s first touchdown was 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 required special preparations because any problems could mean the loss of 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 touchdown was the last major part of Hayabusa2’s mission, and when the probe returns to Earth next year scientists hope to gain insight by examining the collected samples.
“I’m really looking forward to analyzing these materials,” Yoshikawa said.
The Hayabusa2 mission has attracted international attention.
Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May sent a video to the probe’s team ahead of the landing.
“The world is watching. We love you, take care Hayabusa2,” the iconic musician told the team.
About the size of a large refrigerator and equipped with solar panels to keep it powered, Hayabusa2 is the successor to JAXA’s first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa, which is Japanese for falcon.
That probe returned with dust samples from a smaller, potato-shaped asteroid in 2010, despite various setbacks during its epic seven-year odyssey. It was hailed as a scientific triumph.
Hayabusa2’s 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 the asteroid has a rough surface full of boulders.
The Hayabusa2 mission was launched in December 2014, and has a price tag of around ¥30 billion. The probe is scheduled to return to Earth with its samples in 2020.
But its has already made history, including with the creation of the crater on Ryugu’s surface.
In 2005, NASA’s Deep Impact project succeeded in creating an artificial crater on a comet but only for observation purposes.