Japan's asteroid probe Hayabusa2 set for final touchdown

Yuichi Tsuda points at an image showing the surface of the asteroid Ryugu

Yuichi Tsuda points at an image showing the surface of the asteroid Ryugu

Japan's space agency said Thursday its Hayabusa2 space probe has touched down on an asteroid 250 million kilometers from Earth, and believes that it has collected the first-ever asteroid subsurface samples.

The fridge-sized probe made its second landing on the asteroid around 10:30am (0130GMT), with officials from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) breaking into applause and cheers as initial data suggested the touchdown had been a success.

It is the successor to Hayabusa, JAXA's first asteroid explorer. In the final landing phase Thursday, Hayabusa2 hovered at the height of 100 feet above the asteroid and quickly found its landing marker left from the earlier mission.

"It would be safe to say that extremely attractive materials are near the crater", Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda said.

This time, the probe will collect underground rock samples ejected by the impact of a metal object that was sacked into the surface of the asteroid in April.

JAXA officials said they had also observed signals indicating the probe had risen from the surface as planned.

The probe's mission is drawing to an end, however - the touchdown is the last "major" component, and Hayabusa2 will return to Earth next year, allowing scientists to analyze the materials collected.

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Asteroids are essentially leftover building materials from the formation of the Solar System. The probe is scheduled to return to Earth with its samples in 2020.

The spacecraft had started its gradual descent from its home location Wednesday. By early afternoon, JAXA said the probe had descended around 3 miles and was on track to touch down Thursday on the Ryugu asteroid. Though scientists are interested in more precisely plotting the asteroid's trajectory and the risk of its orbit intersecting Earth, researchers are most keen on studying the asteroid's composition. It extended its sampling tube to the ground, shot a pinball-size bullet to break open the surface, and sucked up the debris that was blasted off.

Following on from its successful "bombing" of the asteroid Ryugu in April of this year, Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft has reached another important milestone.

The touchdown marked the second time the spacecraft has captured rocks and dust from the surface of Ryugu, a potentially hazardous asteroid in the Apollo group.

Hayabusa2's photos of Ryugu, which means "Dragon Palace" in Japanese and refers to a castle at the bottom of the ocean in an ancient Japanese tale, show the asteroid has a rough surface full of boulders.

"It is extremely significant to be able to compare soil on the surface and from underground", Watanabe said.

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