One year – this is how long it took the Japanese space probe to return to Earth. But Hayabusa-2 has been in space for much longer. It was launched on December 3, 2014, after several months of testing by the Japanese Aero-space Exploration Agency.
After six years of mission, she has just happily landed in the desert of southern Australia, reports “The Guardian”.
People gathered at the site of the probe return operation, supervised by scientists. As Hayabusa-2 touched the Earth, they cheered and celebrated. “Hayabusa-2 looked like a fireball, it looked like a star falling to Earth,” describes The Guardian.
“Mechanical fleas” in space
Purpose of the mission? Examine the small (only 900 m in diameter) asteroid Ryugu, discovered relatively recently, in 1999. It belongs to the Apollo group of asteroids, whose average distance from the Sun is slightly greater than that of the Earth, but whose orbit intersects with the orbit of our planet. Ryugu is currently on the opposite side of the Sun to the Earth, almost 300 million km separates us.
Hayabusa’s task was to take samples of the asteroid and deliver them to Earth. She collected data and photos using “mechanical fleas”, mobile robots that jumped across the Ryugu surface. It’s hard to call them rovers because they don’t have wheels or tracks. This technique is due to the fact that the asteroid is small and has a negligible gravity field. The twin “mechanical fleas” are called MINERVA-II1A and MINERVA-II1B, which stands for “Micro Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid”. They are tiny, 18 cm by 7 cm in size and weigh only 1 kg. On the surface of an asteroid, they weigh about a quarter of a gram. These are the first ever mobile robots on an asteroid.
The samples were taken from the dust created by the projectile launch into the asteroid. The Japanese counted on the Hayabusa-2 to collect about 10 grams of matter in this way.
Now scientists will deal with the space material. The samples are intended to help answer the fundamental questions of where life came from and how the universe was formed.