Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
UPDATE: December 3, 2014 (8:15 a.m. CST)
After being postponed earlier in the week, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa-2 space probe successfully lifted off early Wednesday morning local time, officially beginning its six-year mission to collect samples from a distant C-type asteroid known as 1999 JU3.
According to the Associated Press, the rectangular shaped, approximately 1,300 pound spacecraft lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Center. It is expected to reach its destination in mid-2018. It will remain there for 18 months, blowing a crater in the asteroid’s surface to collect samples before returning to Earth in late 2020.
Those samples could shed new light on “the origin and evolution of the solar system,” JAXA officials said in a statement, according to CNN.com. “We expect to clarify the origin of life by analyzing samples acquired from a primordial celestial body such as a C-type asteroid to study organic matter and water in the solar system.”
ORIGINAL: December 2, 2014 (5:20 a.m. CST)
Weather conditions have forced the launch of the Hayabusa-2 space probe, which was designed to mine and collect samples from a distant asteroid to be postponed until Wednesday, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced on Monday.
Hayabusa-2, the follow-up mission to the original Hayabusa asteroid explorer, was originally scheduled to launch on Monday but will now lift off at 1:22:04pm local time on December 3 due to strong wind conditions, according to JAXA officials. The launch could also face additional delays based on “weather conditions and other factors,” they added.
Once it does successfully launch, Hayabusa-2 will travel to a nearly 3,000-foot asteroid known as 1999 JU3, a C-type asteroid believed to contain carbon, amino acids and water-rich minerals, according to Irene Klotz of Discovery News. 1999 JU3 travels around the sun in an orbit that intersects Earth’s, and it was discovered 15 years ago by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project, an asteroid-hunting program jointly run by NASA, the US Air Force and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“Knowledge of those materials help us not only learn about the solar system in terms of its early stages of formation, but it also helps us (discover) how life on Earth may have evolved and where the oceans of Earth may have formed,” NASA’s Paul Abell, a planetary scientist with the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told Discovery News.
“If you have meteorites that just fall to Earth, there’s always the question of whether or not those type of organic molecules, some of the volatile materials and the water is due to contamination,” he added. “How can you really, absolutely be sure it didn’t come from Earth? We need something pristine and completely uncontaminated.”
The refrigerator-sized Hayabusa-2 will lift off from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan onboard an H-IIA rocket, and it is expected to arrive at its destination in mid-2018, according to the AFP news agency. It is scheduled to spend 18 months studying 1999 JU3, creating a small impact crater to collect material samples and releasing a team of miniature MINERVA-II rover robots as well as a French-German landing package known as the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) for surface observation.
“If all goes well, Hayabusa 2 will start its journey back home in December 2019 and touch down a year later, carrying a wealth of samples with it,” said Engadget’s Mariella Moon,” adding that the probe will “follow in its predecessor’s footsteps and observing a space rock for science (of course). But unlike the first Hayabusa that explored an asteroid rich in silicate and nickel-iron, this one’s headed for one that’s made… materials that could contain organic matter and water.”
The original Hayabusa probe launched in 2003 and traveled approximately one billion kilometers to reach asteroid Itokawa, from which it collected particle samples and brought them back to Earth in 2010. That mission experienced some technical difficulties, but Klotz said that changes to the ion engine, gyroscopes and other equipment should prevent those issues from occurring during the Hayabusa-2 mission.
FOR THE KINDLE – The History of Space Exploration: redOrbit Press