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.