Tokyo: Japan on Wednesday launched its second-generation asteroid explorer Hayabusa 2, kicking off the country's second mission to collect asteroid samples that scientists hope will help unveil the origins of life.
The Hayabusa 2 aboard the H-2A Launch Vehicle No.26 (H-2A F26) blasted off at 1.22 p.m. Wednesday from Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan's southwestern Kagoshima prefecture.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced the launch of Hayabusa 2, which separated from the rocket at 3.09 p.m. as scheduled, and entered the orbit successfully, according to Xinhua.
An H-2A rocket has never attempted such a lengthy coast period during any of the booster's 25 previous flights.
The launch of the Hayabusa 2 was first scheduled for November 30, but was postponed twice due to bad weather.
Weighing about 600 kg, Hayabusa 2 will explore one of the C-type asteroids called 1999 JU3 in space, retrieve materials and bring them to Earth, said JAXA in a statement.
The nearly spherical asteroid 1999 JU3, which was first observed in 1999, is about 900 metres in diameter. As the rock of C-type asteroids is considered to contain organic matter and water, scientists believe the mission will shed light on the origins of the solar system and life on Earth.
“Hayabusa 2 (will) explore the mystery of the origin of sea water and life on the Earth, in addition to the mystery of Earth's formation,” said JAXA.
After nearing the target asteroid, Hayabusa 2 will make observations through a variety of remote-sensing instruments, a small lander and a rover, which will be released from the probe, and will land on the asteroid, before observations on the surface of the asteroid in detail.
Hayabusa 2 will then touch down and collect samples from the asteroid's surface. Furthermore, with an impactor which is newly developed, it will create an artificial crater and will collect samples from the crater, “which means that we can obtain the sub-surface material of (the) asteroid”, said JAXA.
With a set of spectrometers, cameras and other sensors to map the tiny world, the probe will initially park itself 20 km from the asteroid for a comprehensive survey.
Then, scientists will start to look for suitable sites on the asteroid to put down four diminutive landing drones and scoop up samples before returning to Earth.
The total flying distance of the probe during the six-year journey is estimated to be 5.2 billion km.
Its predecessor Hayabusa (MUSES-C), launched in 2003, returned to Earth after a seven-year mission, during which it landed on an asteroid and collected sample material.
“While Hayabusa (project) has recorded a number of world's first achievements, Hayabusa 2 is aimed at enhancing the reliability of asteroid exploration technologies,” JAXA said.
At the same time, Hayabusa 2 will attempt to obtain new technologies such as creation of artificial craters and high-speed communications in deep space, it said.
The probe is expected to arrive at the C-type asteroid in mid-2018 and return to Earth around the end of 2020 with samples.
(With IANS inputs)