Japanese Asteroid Probe to Fish for Ingredients of Life

Following a successful mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth, Japan is poised to launch a follow-on expedition, with hopes of finding organics.

Following a successful mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth, Japan is poised to launch a follow-on expedition, with hopes of finding organics.

The Hayabusa-2 robotic spacecraft was scheduled to blast off aboard a Japanese H-2A rocket from the Tanegashima Space Center at 11:24 p.m. EST Saturday. UPDATE: Due to poor weather conditions, the launch has been postponed to Monday (Japan time). A precise launch window has yet to be announced.

The destination: Asteroid 1999 JU3, a dark, roughly 3,000-foot asteroid circling the sun in an orbit that crosses Earth's.

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Discovered in 1999 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research, or LINEAR, project -- an asteroid-hunting effort by the U.S. Air Force, NASA and Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- JU3 is a C-type asteroid that scientists believe contains carbon, amino acids and water-rich minerals, similar to materials found in carbonaceous chondrite meteorites.

"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," planetary scientist Paul Abell, with NASA's 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. How can you really, absolutely be sure it didn't come from Earth? We need something pristine and completely uncontaminated," he said.

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The original Hayabusa mission, intended as a technology demonstration, returned samples from a rock-rich S-type asteroid called Itokawa in 2010.

"It was a real success, a major scientific and technological achievement. They made major breakthroughs," Abell said.

Upgrades to the Hayabusa ion engine, gyroscopes and other equipment should alleviate some of the technical difficulties Japanese flight controllers wrestled with during the first mission.

"They still managed to get sample back and intact," Abell said. "It's really like a robotic version of Apollo 13. Their engineering team just worked miracles to try to bring that spacecraft back and they succeeded."

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With the lessons learned, Hayabusa 2 will be more science-driven, with a bigger prize in mind.

"It's trying to understand the relationship of these (different types of) asteroids, how that fits into the formation of the solar system and how it may have influenced life on our planet," Abell said.

Hayabusa 2 should reach 1999 JU3 in mid-2018 and spend about one year surveying the asteroid and gathering samples. The spacecraft carries four rovers that will be deployed to the surface, plus a small impactor probe that will smash into the surface to excavate a fresh crater.

"The spacecraft will be able to watch the crater-formation explosion, watch the ejecta -- the stuff that's thrown out of the crater -- how that either gets removed right away or falls back to the asteroid. It then goes and samples material from inside the crater," said Abell, who is working with JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, on the project.

If all goes well, Hayabusa 2's sample return capsule should land in Australia in December 2020.

Artist's impression of the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft approaching its target asteroid.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft orbited the massive asteroid Vesta in 2011 and 2012, giving us an unprecedented look at the protoplanet's landscape, craters and mineral composition. The probe, which is now on its way to dwarf planet Ceres, not only revealed the evolution of Vesta, it also provided vital clues as to the evolution of our solar system. Now,

in new images published by NASA

, an unusually colorful Vesta landscape is on display. Using data from the mission, scientists at Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany have produced a rather psychedelic view of this otherwise bland landscape. Dawn's camera system is equipped with seven filters, each filter sensitive to a specific wavelength of light. Normally, Vesta would look gray to the naked eye, but when analyzing the ratios of light through Vesta's filters, the landscape pops with color. Shown here, the flow of material inside and outside a crater called Aelia is demonstrated. As different minerals reflect and absorb different wavelengths of light, this composite image is alive with color, each shade representing different kinds of minerals littering Vesta's landscape.

This is Antonia, a crater located inside the huge Rheasilvia basin in the southern hemisphere of Vesta. From this image, planetary scientists have been able

to deduce that

"the light blue material is fine-grain material excavated from the lower crust. The southern edge of the crater was buried by coarser material shortly after the crater formed. The dark blue of the southern crater rim is due to shadowing of the blocky material."

The impact crater Sextilia can be seen in the lower right of this image. The mottled dark patches are likely impact ejecta from a massive impact and the redish regions are thought to be rock that melted during the impact. The diversity of the mineralogy is obvious here. "No artist could paint something like that. Only nature can do this," said Martin Hoffman, a member of the framing camera team at Max Planck Institute.

Earlier images of Vesta have shown an unusual "pitted terrain" on the floors of the craters named Marcia (left) and Cornelia (right). Once again, the varied colors demonstrate the different minerals and processes that cover Vesta's surface.


"global" model

of Vesta shows the abundance of hydrogen on Vesta's surface. Note that the hydrogen signal is enhanced near the asteroid's equator. The hydrogen is likely from hydroxyl or water bound to minerals in Vesta's surface.

Another, earlier view of Antonia crater, demonstrating the mineral diversity of the region.

This is the distinctive Oppia crater on Vesta, an impact that occurred on a slope. This produced an asymmetric ejecta distribution around the crater -- the red/orange ejecta material is more abundant around the downward slope than around the upward portion.