A Japanese spacecraft has successfully touched down on the surface of an asteroid in a historic attempt to ‘take a bite’ from the surface and bring samples back to Earth for examination.
The Hayabusa 2 probe descended to asteroid Ryugu just before 11pm GMT (6pm EST) on Thursday, where it fired a tantalum pellet into the surface and kicked up dust that it’s hoped the spacecraft was able to collect.
If all went according to plan, the probe used its instrument called a sampler horn to capture the loose material.
But, we won’t know for sure until it returns to Earth in 2020.
By exploring the makeup of such asteroids, scientists hope to unlock clues to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth.
The unmanned spacecraft approached the 1km-wide asteroid to briefly kiss the surface as it attempted to gather the debris kicked up by its 5g projectile.
Despite a few hiccups during the descent, the Japanese space agency (JAXA) confirmed a few minutes after touchdown that the craft began to rise again afterward, as planned.
Professor Alan Fitzsimmons, from Queen’s University in Belfast, told MailOnline that the samples it collects could shed light on the early solar system and help to explain where Earth got its water.
‘We get information from the samples about what has happened to the asteroid since it formed, and test our theories of Solar System evolution,’ Fitzsimmons said.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was forced to delay the descent for around five hours, but all eventually went forward according to plan.
The material collected from Ryugu will be stored onboard until the spacecraft returns to its landing site in Woomera, South Australia, after a journey of more than 3 billion miles.
Ryugu belongs to a primitive type of space rock known as a C-type, a space rock left over from the early days of the Solar System which mean it could provide invaluable insight into the history of solar system.
Ahead of its descent, the spacecraft dropped a ‘target marker’ on to Ryugu to be used as a guide as the spacecraft descends to the rough surface of the asteroid.
The spacecraft began descending from its ‘home position’ of 20km above the asteroid’s surface in the early hours of 21 February (GMT)- several hours later than planned.
However, controllers said they would slightly increase the speed of descent down to 5km, so that the original touchdown time was not affected.
The landing will be challenging because of the boulder-covered surface, according to JAXA.
The sampler horn located on the underbelly of the spacecraft has a length of 1m which is why it is vital that there are no boulders more than 50cm in height at the landing site.
This could damage the sampler horn and cause the body of the spacecraft to hit a rock and have the potential to affect the amount of dust taken.
The spacecraft reached asteroid Ryugu in June 2018 after a three-and-a-half-year journey from Earth.
JAXA had originally planned to carry out the same operation in October last year.
But the asteroid’s surface was found to be much more rugged than expected making it hard to find a location that was flat enough to take samples from.
It is expected to return to Earth with its collected samples in 2020.
The Hayabusa mission gathered samples from asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and returned them to Earth in 2010.
WHAT WILL THE HAYABUSA2 SPACE PROBE DO?
Hayabus2 was launched on December 3, 2014 and arrived above the Ryugu asteroid three years later.
It’s mission is to gather information about the origin of life, and it has fur primary missions:
1. It will will perform detailed observations of asteroids using multi band visible camera, laser altimeter, near infrared spectrometer, and a mid infrared camera
2. It will then send down a MINERVA II rover to deliver imagery and temperature measurements.
3. An impactor device will use high-explosives to generate a high-speed impact that is hoped to expose material from under the asteroid’s surface for collection by Hayabusa2
4. The probe will then return to Earth and send a Return Capsule for re-entry with the samples for analysis