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Japan lands on an asteroid after blasting rock samples

The life of an asteroid is solitary. Rocks spend centuries adrift in the cold emptiness of space.

But on Wednesday, the asteroid Ryugu welcomed a special visitor: the Japanese probe Hayabusa-2 landed successfully on the surface of the asteroid at 9:06 pm. AND.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched Hayabusa-2 in space in December 2014. Its mission: to explore and collect samples of Ryugu, a primitive asteroid of a half -kilometre diameter that revolves around the sun up to 131 million miles. (211 million kilometers).

The probe reached its destination in June 2018, then began making observations, measuring the severity of the asteroid and repeating to hit the ground. In April, he sandblasted the asteroid with a copper plate and a box of explosives in order to detach the rocks and expose materials beneath the surface. He then landed in Ryugu successfully to collect rock and soil debris.

The probe captured the images below as it left the surface of the asteroid.

"The first picture was taken at 10:06:32 JST (edge ​​time) and you can see the gravel flying up." The second picture was taken at 10:08:53 where the darker area near the center must land, "JAXA tweeted.

These images were taken just after Hayabusa-2 landed on the Ryugu asteroid on July 11, 2019.
JAXA / Associated Press

Samples of old rocks

Asteroids are made of rock and metal and take all kinds of original forms ranging from pebbles to megaliths over 100 km. Most of them hang in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, although Ryugu 's orbit sometimes takes it between Mars and Earth.

Some asteroids date back to the dawn of our solar system, 4.5 billion years ago, when materials left over from the formation of planets merged to form these pieces of rock. In this sense, asteroids can serve as time capsules: what scientists discover in these primitive rocks could tell us a lot about the history of the solar system.

Ryugu is a type C asteroid, which means that it is rich in organic carbon molecules, water and possibly amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and were essential to the evolution of life on Earth. Some theories claim that an asteroid has brought the amino acids here, giving our planet the seeds of life, although it is still discussed.

About three quarters of the asteroids in our solar system are type C. Hayabusa-2 aims to be the first mission to bring back samples of such an asteroid to Earth.

The probe landed on Ryugu in February and collected shallow samples below the surface, but mission officials also decided to collect deeper rock samples, as this material was not exposed to the weather. To do this, the probe had to lift off the asteroid and then blow up a crater 10 meters into the surface in order to access the rock underneath.

So, in April, Hayabusa-2 launched and blew a box of explosives into the space that projected a copper plate on the asteroid.

Wednesday's landing then caused a stir in all this material released.

The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa-2 lands on an asteroid to collect samples.
JAXA / Associated Press

These images were taken before and after the touch by the small camera of the monitor (CAM-H), the first is 4 seconds before the touch, the second is the touch and the third is 4 seconds after the touch. image, you can see the amount of rocks rising ", JAXA tweeted.

After the landing, Hayabusa – 2 then collected a new set of samples and left the surface of Ryugu. At the end of this year, the return trip will begin on 5.5 million miles (9 million kilometers). Until now, everything is going as planned.

NASA is on a similar mission

NASA is also studying a distant asteroid.

The OSIRIS-REx mission of the agency reached a much smaller Type C asteroid, Bennu, in August 2018. But the probe did not land on Bennu's surface; instead, it was in orbit at a record record distance.

OSIRIS-REx is expected to approach Bennu's surface in July 2020, but the spacecraft will only come into contact for about five seconds. During this brief moment, the nitrogen gas will be sucked in to attract dust and pebbles and collect the samples. If all goes according to plan, the material will be sent back to Earth in 2023.

The surface of the asteroid has proven to be rougher than expected, however, and debris that fly away from the rock can pose a threat to the orbiting spacecraft. NASA therefore always chooses its sampling site.

But Bennu has already made an important discovery: in December, before going into orbit around Bennu, the probe had discovered that the asteroid harbored ingredients for water (oxygen and hydrogen atoms bound together). Although Bennu is too small to hold liquid water, it is possible that water already existed on his main asteroid, which Bennu had already left between 700 million and 2 billion years ago.

Although NASA's asteroid exploration mission is collecting a larger amount of samples than Japan's, the JAXA team hopes that comparing samples from two different sites on the same asteroid will provide new information on how long-term spatial exposure modifies asteroids over time.

Bennu and Ryugu could also teach many things to scientists about the history of the solar system and, possibly, if they contain organic matter, about the origins of life on Earth.

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