Japan’s ‘Hayabusa 2’ to Explore Asteroid to Learn if Organics Have Any Relation to Life on Earth


A new-and-improved successor to the troubled Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa – which finally returned to Earth earlier this year – could launch as soon as 2014.

Like its predecessor, it will visit an asteroid to collect dust samples. But whereas Hayabusa visited the 500-metre-wide asteroid Itokawa to collect silicon- and iron-rich dust, Hayabusa 2 will visit a kilometre-sized space rock called 1999 JU3, in search of organic molecules that might have seeded life on Earth. Combining the Earth swingby and ion engines, the probe reached this unexplored body and provided the first close look of a Near Earth Object (NEO).

JAXA is now considering a new mission named Hayabusa-2 the probe, will visit a NEO -a C-type asteroid, considered to contain more organic or hydrated materials than S-type asteroids like Itokawa to determine what types of organic materials exist in the solar system, and there relation to life on Earth. Hayabusa 2 is be expected to return in 2020, bearing clues to the origin of life on Earth.

A new feature on Hayabusa 2 will be a 30-centimetre-wide bomb known as an impactor, says Makoto Yoshikawa, part of the Hayabusa 2 team at JAXA. When Hayabusa 2 is 500 meters from the asteroid, it will release the impactor and then retreat behind the asteroid "to hide", says Yoshikawa. "Then the impactor explodes."

The resulting 1-metre crater will enable samples to be taken from below the asteroid's surface, where its material is less affected by solar radiation. Hayabusa aimed to take samples from Itokawa's surface, but the subsurface material that Hayabusa 2 will sample is more likely to hold clues to the chemistry of the asteroid's past.

Like the first mission, it will have a small pellet to fire into the asteroid, kicking up dust for collection by a cone-shaped device. The new mission will also be designed to inject a sticky, silicon-based material into the asteroid crater to gather extra dust. "If we have two kinds of sampling methods, we are sure to get more samples," reasons Yoshikawa. The contents of the capsule that Hayabusa One delivered to Earth are still being analyzed.

The dust gathered could tell if amino acids first arrived on Earth by hitch-hiking on asteroids or comets that bombarded our infant planet.  Last year NASA confirmed that its Stardust mission had captured amino acids from the tail of the icy comet Wild 2. But asteroid 1999 JU3, which thermal imaging indicates is rich in carbon compounds, is much closer to Earth and may therefore provide new insights into life's origins.

Jason McManus




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