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Japan marks history with Hayabusa2 trying to collect underground samples in the asteroid

A remarkable image taken just 4 seconds after touchdown, with floating debris clearly visible.
Image: JAXA

Earlier in the day, Hayabusa2 in Japan may have become the first probe in history to collect materials under the surface of an asteroid – a mission that could provide important new information about the early stages of our solar system . This attempt alone is an exciting feat, but we will not know for sure if the probe was able to collect samples until it returned to Earth next year.

"From the data sent by Hayabusa2, it was confirmed that the handshake sequence, including the unloading of a projectile for sampling, had been completed," announced JAXA (Agency). Japanese Aerospace Exploration) in a press release issued today.

The probe made its touch at 10:06 am Japan time and is operating normally, according to the JAXA.

This is the second time that Hayabusa2 has visited the surface of Ryugu, an asteroid 870 meters wide and located 300 million kilometers from the Earth. The first hit occurred last February, when the probe fired a projectile at Ryugu's surface, ejecting material from the surface, which she then collected.

This second visit is remarkable in that Hayabusa2 tried to collect materials under the surface, which had never been done before. In April, the probe fired an "impactor", a copper bullet, on the surface of Ryugu, which produced an artificial crater surrounded by underground material. This material is valuable to scientists because it is protected from the effects of space alteration, including cosmic rays and charged particles that discharge from the Sun. These samples could shed new light on the origins of the solar system and what it looked like billions of years ago.

The exact moment when Hayabusa2 sits on Ryugu.
Image: JAXA

The second operation to visit the surface of the asteroid began on July 9, but Hayabusa2 began its slow journey to the surface as of July 10. When it reached a distance of 30 meters (98 feet), the probe spotted a marker that she had previously deposited and autonomously adjusted its trajectory accordingly. The probe made a brief landing at a site designated as the C01-Cb region, about 20 meters from the man-made crater.

The touch itself only lasted a few seconds, during which the probe fired a small projectile on the surface. This produced a field of floating debris that fell into its collector tube (or at least we hope). Hayabusa2 is then reassembled at a safe distance, where he will continue to monitor the asteroid and the sampling site.

This mission was potentially risky, as Hayabusa2 had already tried to collect surface samples, and a failure here could have shut down the spacecraft, preventing it from delivering its precious cargo to Earth. Fortunately, this does not seem to be the case, mission controllers calling today's landing "perfect".

"It was a success, a great success," Hayabusa 2 team member Takashi Kubota told a news conference earlier in the day, reports New Scientist. "We have succeeded in all the planned procedures."

Hayabusa2 was the last major operation to be completed, with the exception of his return trip to Earth. The probe should come back late next year with its samples.

It is interesting to note that, according to AFP, the sample cartridges will be deposited in the Earth's atmosphere for reintroduction, but the probe itself will remain in space. As a result, JAXA is considering an extended mission in which Hayabusa2 could be sent to visit another asteroid.

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