On Monday, Japan plans to launch a new robotic probe, Hayabusa-2, to Asteroid 1999 JU3 with hopes of collecting some organic samples. Hayabusa-2 is Japan’s second attempt of asteroid data collecting since 2010.
Hayabusa-1 was launched in May 2003 and it was the first spacecraft to bring asteroid samples on Earth and successfully land and take off from the surface of an asteroid. It returned to Earth in June 2010 after experiencing a series of technical difficulties.
On Saturday, Hayabusa-2 was scheduled to leave the ground carried by an H-2A rocket designed by Tanegashima Space Center. Due to weather conditions, the launch was delayed till Monday. An exact launching time is unknown.
Hayabusa-2’s target is a dark, 3,000 foot asteroid orbiting the Sun called asteroid 1999 JU3. This asteroid was first spotted in 1999 by Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR), an asteroid hunting project started by NASA, US Air Force and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Asteroid 1999 seems to be a C type asteroid that might contain amino acids, carbon and minerals. This type of composition is also common to carbonaceous chondrite meteorites that often drop on Earth’s surface.
Paul Abell, NASA planetary scientists, said those materials would help mankind learn more about the birth of our solar system, about how life on Earth emerged, and about where oceans might have first formed. Abell said the best source to use for this goal were asteroids since meteorites that fall on Earth often are contaminated by organic mollecules collected when impacting Earth. Scientists need something “pristine and completely uncontaminated,” Abell added.
Hayabusa-1 was able to return asteroid samples from an S-type asteroid named Itokawa.
“It was a real success, a major scientific and technological achievement. They made major breakthroughs,”
Hayabusa-1 was also powered by a prototype ion engine that seemed to help it surpass some technical difficulties the spacecraft encountered while returning home. Japanese engineers did all they could to return to Earth the sample and the probe intact. Hayabusa-1 was like a robotic version of Apollo 13, but the team of flight controlers worked miracles to bring the spacecraft back.
Hayabusa 2 – second asteroid sample return mission – is scheduled to get close to asteroid 1999 JU3 in mid-2018 and plans to stay on it almost a year and collect samples.
Abell said Hayabusa-2 would try to understand the link between these different types of asteroids and how they influenced our solar system formation and life on Earth.