Hayabusa 2 launches on audacious asteroid adventure


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Japan’s Hayabusa 2 asteroid mission blasts off from Tanegashima Space Center aboard an H-2A rocket. Credit: JAXA

A Japanese H-2A launcher blasted off from an idyllic island spaceport Tuesday, dispatching a daring six-year expedition to bring a piece of an asteroid back to Earth.

The Hayabusa 2 mission’s roundtrip voyage began at 0422 GMT Wednesday (11:22 p.m. EST Tuesday) with a thunderous ascent from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan.

The 1,300-pound spacecraft rode a hydrogen-fueled H-2A rocket through clouds hanging over the seaside spaceport, leaving a twisting column of exhaust in its wake before disappearing hundreds of miles over the Pacific Ocean.

The rocket’s upper stage engine fired two times to accelerate Hayabusa 2 on a speedy departure fast enough to break free of the pull of Earth’s gravity.

The robotic explorer, packed with four stowaway landers to be deployed to the asteroid’s surface, separated from the H-2A rocket at 0609 GMT (1:09 a.m. EST). Applause could be heard in a live webcast of the launch provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which manages the Hayabusa 2 mission.

The launch marked the opening chapter in the most ambitious mission to an asteroid ever attempted. The roundtrip journey will take six years to complete, and Hayabusa 2 promises to expand scientists’ understanding of how asteroids may have seeded Earth with water and organic molecules, the building blocks of life.

Hayabusa 2 is heading for asteroid 1999 JU3, a carbon-rich world just 900 meters — about 3,000 feet — across with a tenuous gravity field 60,000 times weaker than Earth’s.

The mission follows up on the achievements of Japan’s Hayabusa 1 probe, which made the first roundtrip flight to an asteroid from 2003 to 2010. The first Hayabusa mission encountered several crippling problems, including a fuel leak, failures in its pointing system, and a glitch with the craft’s sample collection system.

Despite the challenges, the spacecraft returned to Earth in 2010 — a few years late and carrying a fraction of the asteroid specimens intended. But Japanese scientists found microscopic samples from asteroid Itokawa — Hayabusa 1’s research subject — inside the probe’s landing vehicle.

The success vaulted Japan into the big leagues of solar system exploration.

“Many scientific milestones have been achieved from asteroid observations and samples from the asteroid Itokawa,” said Tetsuo Tanaka, associate director general of JAXA’s Lunar and Planetary Exploration Program Group. “Going to a far-off asteroid and returning with samples from it for the first time, these are tremendous technological challenges and our success in meeting them has brought worldwide admiration.”

“For the Hayabusa 2 project, Japan’s development of its own deep space exploration technology aims to lead the world in that technical field,” Tanaka said. “The Hayabusa 2 project sets new challenges for Japan’s unique technologies. How we face those challenges and how we use (the) project results will surely bring new impacts to the world.”

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Artist’s concept of the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft at asteroid 1999 JU3. Credit: JAXA

Continue reading Hayabusa 2 launches on audacious asteroid adventure

JAXA shows off second-generation asteroid explorer ‘Hayabusa 2’


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Japan’s space agency showed off a space probe to be launched next month that it hopes will answer questions about how life seeded Earth.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) intends to land Hayabusa 2 on an asteroid orbiting between Earth and Mars. It is set to be launched by an H-2A rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center here on Nov. 30.

Its predecessor, launched in 2003, returned to Earth after a seven-year mission, during which it landed on an asteroid and collected sample material, an unprecedented achievement.

JAXA showed off the near complete body of its second-generation asteroid explorer to reporters on Oct. 27.

Hayabusa 2 will embark on a six-year journey to collect samples from an asteroid called 1999 JU3. Scientists expect the mission to shed light on the origins of the solar system and life on Earth.

The spherical asteroid is about 900 meters diameter and is thought to contain organic compounds and water, the key to life. It was first observed in 1999.

Hayabusa 2 arrived at Tanegashima island, south of Kagoshima, on Sept. 22. The capsule, impactor and other parts were then assembled.

A JAXA official said Hayabusa 2 will be attached to the rocket after fueling operations are complete and the exterior of the explorer has been inspected for flaws.

Hayabusa 2 is slated to reach the asteroid between June and July in 2018, and spend 18 months on the celestial body before returning to Earth between November and December in 2020.

The explorer will release the impactor to smash a crater and collect mineral samples that have not been exposed to and affected by the heat of the sun.