Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe made a “perfect” touchdown yesterday on a distant asteroid, collecting samples from beneath the surface in an unprecedented mission that could shed light on the origins of the solar system.
“We’ve collected a part of the solar system’s history,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda said at a jubilant press conference hours after the successful landing was confirmed.
“We have never gathered sub-surface material from a celestial body further away than the Moon,” he added. “We did it and we succeeded in a world first.”
The fridge-sized probe made its second landing on the desolate asteroid Ryugu, some 300 million kilometres (185 million miles) from Earth around 10:30am (0130GMT), said Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). .
Yesterday’s touchdown was intended to collect pristine materials from beneath the surface of the asteroid that could provide insights into what the solar system was like at its birth, some 4.6 billion years ago.
To get at those crucial materials, in April an “impactor” was fired from Hayabusa2 towards Ryugu in a risky process that created a crater on the asteroid’s surface and stirred up material that had not previously been exposed to the atmosphere.
Hayabusa2’s first touchdown was in February, when it landed briefly on Ryugu and fired a bullet into the surface to puff up dust for collection, before blasting back to its holding position.
The second touchdown required special preparations because any problems could mean the probe would lose the precious materials already gathered during its first landing.
Hayabusa2 is expected to leave the asteroid to return to Earth at the end of next year, with the samples set for scientific study.