Japan’s space program JAXA has had a very eventful 24 hours. The group’s Hayabusa2 asteroid probe, which arrived at its target Ryugu last year, performed its most challenging maneuver yet by leaving its orbit around the rock and touching down on its surface for just a moment. But that’s not all it did.
The plan all along has been for Hayabusa2 to retrieve samples of the diamond-shaped asteroid in order to bring them back to Earth, but snatching a sample isn’t as easy as it sounds. In order to efficiently collect dust from the rock during its brief touchdown the spacecraft had to fire a bullet into Ryugu, and it had to do all of this without direct control from its handlers on Earth over 180 million miles away.
JAXA engineers waited patiently for the probe to send back information on its maneuver, with signals taking around 20 minutes to travel back and forth between Earth and the spacecraft.
However, despite the incredible challenge posed by the rocky surface of Ryugu, JAXA says its probe pulled off the feat, successfully firing the projectile into the asteroid’s surface and then snatching a sample of its dust before boosting itself back into a holding position in orbit around the rock.
“We made a successful touchdown, including firing a bullet. We made the ideal touchdown in the best conditions,” Yuichi Tsuda, project manager of the Hayabusa2 mission, told reporters. “I’m really relieved now. It felt very long until the moment the touchdown happened.”
That feeling of relief might not last very long, as Hayabusa2 still has plenty of work ahead of it before it can call its mission truly complete. The probe will perform two more maneuvers like this one, collecting dust samples and then finally departing for Earth where it will deliver the asteroid material. It will arrive back on our planet in 2020 if all goes as planned.