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Japanese probe prepares to return sample of asteroid to Earth

JAXA Hayabusa 2 Ryugu landing artists conception JAXA

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe recently touched down on asteroid Ryugu and collected a sample from this rock orbiting between Earth and Mars. Now, the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, has revealed its future plans for the craft, including deploying another lander onto the asteroid and a procedure for returning the collected sample to Earth.

The next challenge for Hayabusa 2 is the planned deployment of the MINERA-II2 lander. Two previous landers, called MINERA-II, were already deployed onto Ryugu’s surface to capture close-up images of the asteroid. A practice run for deploying a third rover to join these previous two will happen on September 5, ahead of the real launch.

With that done, the craft will return to Earth and eject a capsule which will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. The craft itself will remain in space, possibly to be reused for a future mission.

The last stage of the mission is for JAXA scientists to collect the capsule once it lands on Earth. The capsule is projected to land in the Australian outback in the Woomera Prohibited Area, a region used for military testing which is not accessible to the public. Therefore, the space agency is in talks with the Australian government to arrange collection. JAXA has already run a field survey of the planned recovery site, with permission from the government, and found that the site is suitable for recovery. Hopefully this means there won’t be any legal problems in collecting the capsule and its precious cargo.

Image of the recovery candidate site (photographed in December 2018) JAXA

In order to locate and collect the capsule, a search station will be set up near to the projected landing location. The station will be equipped with an antenna which can detect the descending beacon of the capsule and locate it through triangulation. In addition to the antenna, visual infrared cameras will search for the capsule too.

If something goes wrong with the capsule landing and the parachute fails to open, there is a backup plan. The light streak caused by the re-entry of the capsule will be track to estimate the landing point, and JAXA is considering using marine radar to search as well.

Hayabusa2 is projected to return to Earth at the end of next year, so JAXA has until then to finalize its collection plans.

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