(From AP News)
A Japanese space probe arrived at an asteroid Wednesday after a 3 1/2-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 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the asteroid and some 280 million kilometers (170 million miles) from Earth, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.
Over the next year and a half, the robotic explorer 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 mission is challenging. Hayabusa2 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. Any samples would be sent back in a re-entry capsule that is due to arrive at the end of 2020.
The asteroid, named Ryugu after an undersea palace in a Japanese folktale, is about 900 meters (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.”