On Friday, JAXA officials announced that after six years in space, Hayabusa2 spacecraft is approaching home on its planned trajectory. After dropping off asteroid Ryugu samples, the craft will begin its new extended mission.
Launched in December 2014, Hayabusa2 successfully touched down asteroid Ryugu twice, despite its heavily rocky surface at some three hundred million kilometres away from Earth.
First touched down was in February 2019 when it collected dust samples from the surface. In July 2019 second touched down was performed when it collected underground samples from the crater it created by blasting off the asteroid’s surface.
This Sunday morning probe will deliver the samples in Woomera area in South Australia. The spacecraft has stored the samples inside the sample return capsule (SRC).
At some 220,000 kilometres above Earth, the spacecraft will release the SRC spinning at one revolution per three seconds. This SRC will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at the speed of twelve kilometres per second.
While re-entering atmosphere, the SRC, protected by its heat shield, will briefly become a ball of fire. At an altitude of about ten kilometres it will deploy parachute to slow down its fall and heat shield will be ejected, while transmission of beacon signals will begin to indicate the location.
To receive these signals, JAXA is all set up with satellite dishes at various sites in the target zone. Additionally marine radar, drones and helicopters will be assisting the search and retrieval of the capsule which is forty centimetre in diameter.
Scientists are expecting that probe will deliver about 0.1 gram material which will provide clues about Solar System’s early days after its birth some 4.6 billion years ago and origin of life here on Earth.
Samples from beneath the asteroid’s surface are of special interest for scientists, as these samples hold precious data untouched by harsh space radiation and other environmental influences.
But, Hayabusa2’s mission, which began in 2014, will be far from over. As of September 2020, scientists at JAXA has planned two new targets for future flybys in 2026 and 2031 as part of spacecraft’s extended mission.
After delivering the samples, spacecraft will perform a series of orbits around Sun for about six years. It will study and collect data of interplanetary space dust and exoplanets.
After that, in July 2026 probe will approach for its first extended mission target- asteroid called 2001 CC21. The spacecraft won’t get too close to the asteroid, however it is expected to take photographs while completing a high speed flyby.
Then it will head for its second and final target- 1998 KY26, a thirty meters diameter asteroid. It will arrive at asteroid in July 2031, at that time probe will be about three hundred million kilometres away from us.
However, extended mission do have some shortfalls, such as degradation of probe’s equipment in deep space. Having said that, mission still offers a chance to continue with the research.