Japan's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft launches safely on its asteroid-landing adventure

First came Rosetta's historic touchdown of the Philae lander on Comet 67P last month, now comes an encore mission by the Japanese Space Agency's (JAXA) asteroid-chasing Hayabusa 2, which hopes to land on Asteroid 1999JU3 in 2018, after an Earth flyby next year, and return with valuable samples.  If all goes to plan, Japan's intrepid spaceship will be the third spacecraft to park itself on an asteroid, following in the footsteps of NASA's NEAR-Shoemaker Eros mission in 2001 and Japan's Hayabusa 1 landing on Asteroid 25143 in 2005.   Hayabusa 1's sample retrieval system failed upon impact but the lander did return to Earth with a few samples, just nowhere close to what JAXA had expected.   Still, it was the first microscopic dust and mineralogy samples ever examined from an asteroid since NASA's spacecraft was not designed as a lander and never attempted to lift off the surface once impact occurred.

With Wednesday's perfect seaside launch from Japan's Tanegashima Space Center, a new chapter in asteroid exploration begins.  The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is equipped with four stowaway landing drones, MASCOT, for analyses, and three MINERVA landers to take photos and measurements.  

MASCOT will spend 18 months on the asteroid's surface collecting samples before lifting back off in December of 2019 with a proposed parachute touchdown of an ejected sample container back on Earth circa the end of 2020 in the Australian outback.

Hayabusa 2 is the most elaborate mission to an asteroid ever attempted, even containing a device to fire a copper bullet into the asteroid's crust, and its roundtrip odyssey between the orbits of Earth and Mars will take a full six years to complete.   Asteroid 1999JU3 is classified as a carbon-rich body spanning just 3,000 feet across with a gravity field 60,000 times weaker than Earth's.   Information obtained from this ambitious undertaking hopes to greatly expand scientists' knowledge and understanding of how asteroids may have seeded our planet with organic molecules and water.  

What do you think of Japan's new asteroid-hopping mission and its bold entry into the global space exploration race?

(Via Spaceflight Now)

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