JAXA’s asteroid explorer, Hayabusa2, is on an asteroid sample-return mission that started on 3 December 2014, from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center. The 3.5-year voyage spanned nearly 3.2 billion kilometres (over 8,000 times the average distance from Earth to the moon). The explorer finally reached Ryugu asteroid on 27 June 2018.
Since September 2018, Hayabusa2 has deployed one lander and two rovers to Ryugu’s surface to investigate the asteroid. Impressively, Hayabusa2 also completed two sample collections, on 21 February 2019 and 11 July 2019.
Hayabusa2 plans to depart Ryugu in December 2019, the return trip is expected to take a year with retrieval operations planned to occur in the South Australian desert area of Woomera.
On 13 June 2010, Hayabusa (JAXA’s first asteroid sample-return mission) successfully returned to Earth after landing on a small asteroid named Itokawa. It was retrieved from the Woomera Prohibited Area, with the Australian government and JAXA working closely to ensure the re-entry activities were safe.
The sample return capsule will land in Australia’s Woomera Prohibited Area on 6 December 2020. The capsule has samples from the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid Ryugu on board. This is the first ever sub-surface asteroid sample to return to Earth.
Dr Megan Clark AC, head of the Australian Space Agency, commented on the importance of this collaboration.
"This is an exciting mission; our regulatory role is to ensure the safety of space activities. More broadly, we have been supporting JAXA by co-ordinating efforts across the Commonwealth and South Australian government to plan for the sample capsule’s recovery and return to Japan," Dr Clark explained.
By studying the sample, scientists will gain insights into the origin and evolution of the solar system. This may also help scientists relate to our oceans and life formed here on Earth.
The two space agencies are working in close co-operation to realise this mission. This international co-operation is being carefully planned through the added challenges caused by COVID-19.
JAXA will continue operations for the safe return of Hayabusa2 and the recovery of the capsule.
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