When Japan’s Hayabusa probe returned to Earth in June 2010 after seven years in space, it was an unlikely triumph: The spacecraft had survived a series of equipment failures to bring home the first material captured from an asteroid. Though its designers intended for it to obtain larger fragments of asteroid 25143 Itokawa, the failures meant that only a few microscopic dust particles could be procured.
Hayabusa’s more ambitious asteroid-hunting follow-up, Hayabusa 2, launched from Tanegashima Space Centre in the south of Japan last week. The 1,300-pound spacecraft is now orbiting the sun, and its sampling “horn” for plucking material off the surface of an asteroid has been checked out. In 2015 it will use a gravity boost from Earth to slingshot into deep space to intercept its target, the roughly 900-meter-wide carbonaceous asteroid known as 1999 JU3. Hayabusa 2 is due to arrive in June 2018 and is expected to spend about a year and a half observing its prey before returning to Earth with its sample in December 2020.
Hayabusa 2 will up the ante on its predecessor’s achievement by blasting a crafter in the surface of the asteroid with a “Small Carry-on Impactor,” then deploying three rovers and a French-and-German-built lander dubbed MASCOT (for Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) into the impact crater and the cloud of material created by the explosion. This video shows an October 2013 test-firing of the impactor.
The lander is designed to take off from the asteroid’s surface and “hop” to a second collection site. This C-type asteroid is considered more like to contain organic material than the S-type asteroid explored by the first Hayabusa probe. JAXA is hoping analysis of the material collected from 1999 JU3 will yield new revelations about the origins of Earth’s seawater.
Powered by twin solar arrays, Hayabusa2’s ion engines will drive it at 90,000 miles per hour. Hayabusa in Japanese means “peregrine falcon,” the bird of prey that can swoop down upon its quarry in excess of 240 miles per hour, making it among the fastest animals on Earth.