Japan probe set for final touchdown on distant asteroid

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Mission control has been keeping a close eye on the probe 300 million kilometres away. AFP

TOKYO (AFP) – Japan’s Hayabusa2 probe began descending on Wednesday for its final touchdown on a distant asteroid, hoping to collect samples that could shed light on the evolution of the solar system.

“At 9:58, we made a ‘Go’ decision for the Hayabusa2 probe’s second touchdown,” the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said in a statement.

By early afternoon, JAXA said the probe had descended around five kilometres and was on track to touchdown Thursday on the Ryugu asteroid, some 300 million kilometres (185 million miles) from Earth.

If successful, it will be the second time it has landed on the desolate asteroid as part of a complex mission that has also involved sending rovers and robots.

The mission hopes 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.

The impactor also stirred up material that had not previously been exposed to the atmosphere.

“This is the second touchdown, but doing a touchdown is a challenge whether it’s the first or the second,” Yuichi Tsuda, Hayabusa2 project manager, told reporters ahead of the mission.

“The whole team will do our best so that we’ll be able to complete the operation,” he said.

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 requires special preparations.Any problems could mean the probe loses the precious materials already gathered during its first landing.

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