In an ambitious quest to learn more about the building blocks for life, Japan is preparing to launch an ambitious mission to retrieve samples from a primitive asteroid, the same type of object that may have smashed into early Earth, delivering water and organics.
The mission, slated to launch in 2014, is a follow-on to Japan's troubled, but ultimately successful Hayabusa 1 probe, which managed to snare some microscopic bits of dust from an asteroid known as Itokawa and return them to Earth in June 2010.
That mission helped resolve a long-standing question about the connection between asteroids and a particular group of meteorites that have been recovered on Earth.
Hayabusa 2 is going after a bigger question -- whether the ingredients for life arrived on asteroids similar to 1999 JU3, the target of Japan's new mission. Unlike Itokawa, known as an S-type asteroid, 1999 JU3, an older, carbonaceous or C-type asteroid, is believed to be rich in hydrated minerals and organic matter.
"We're not saying that we can find the origin of life on Earth," Hokkaido University's Shogo Tachibana, a lead scientist for the Hayabusa mission, said in an article published in this month's Physics World. "Rather that asteroids preserve the history of the very early solar system."