A Japanese spacecraft arrived at an asteroid Wednesday after a 3.5-year journey to undertake a first-ever experiment: blow a crater in the rocky surface to collect samples and bring them back to Earth. The unmanned Hayabusa2 spacecraft reached its base of operations about 12 miles from the asteroid and some 170 million miles from Earth, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency says. Over the next year and a half, the spacecraft will attempt three brief touch-and-go landings to collect samples. If the retrieval and the return journey are successful, the asteroid material could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth, the AP reports. The mission is challenging. The robotic explorer will spend about two months looking for suitable landing places on the uneven surface.
Because of the high surface temperature, it will stay for only a few seconds each time it lands. The asteroid, named Ryugu after an undersea palace in a Japanese folktale, is about 3,000 feet in diameter. In photos released by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, it appears more cube-shaped than round. A number of large craters can be seen, which Project Manager Yuichi Tsuda said in an online post makes the selection of landing points "both interesting and difficult." The first touchdown is planned for September or October. Before the final touchdown scheduled for April-May, Hayabusa2 will send out a squat cylinder that will detonate above the asteroid, shooting a 4.4-pound copper projectile into it at high speed to make a crater. Hayabusa2 was launched in Dec. 2014 and is due to return to Earth at the end of 2020.
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