An illustration of the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft passing near Earth
Akihiro Ikeshita / JAXA
Hayabusa 2 is about to attempt a bold feat. The Japanese spaceship, which was fired at the asteroid Ryugu in 2014, is on its way back to Earth, carrying two samples of rocks and dust from the asteroid’s surface. To bring these samples back to Earth, Hayabusa 2 will fly over the planet and drop its sample capsule from space onto a trajectory that should land it in Australia early December 6th local time. The sample capsule has no thrusters, so accuracy is crucial here.
During its orbit around Ryugu, Hayabusa 2 took many pictures and dropped off three rovers, but the main job was to collect samples. The first was removed from the surface by shooting a small bullet into the ground and collecting the particles that were inflated on impact.
Second, the spaceship essentially bombed the asteroid, shooting a piece of copper with an explosive charge onto the surface to excavate a crater about 10 meters in diameter. This enabled Hayabusa 2 to extract pristine material from beneath Ryugu’s surface.
“If you look at the surface rocks and then look at the rocks inside, you can really understand how the space environment changes over time,” says Kerri Donaldson Hanna of the University of Central Florida.
The rocks on Ryugu are extremely porous and fragile – initial measurements indicated that they could consist of up to half an empty space. “Because they are so porous, if such stones had entered the earth’s atmosphere as a meteor, they would probably have been burned and we would not have a sample, so these stones will be really new and different to everything in our collection of meteorites “, Says Hanna.
Hayabusa 2 drops the sample capsule and then re-ignites its engines to prevent the main spaceship from crashing. There is still a lot of fuel. After the samples fall to Earth, the spaceship speeds by and makes its way to another asteroid called 1998 KY26, which it is expected to reach in 2031.
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