When last we checked in with Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft in April, it had blown a crater in a large rock that orbits the sun. On Wednesday night (Thursday morning in Japan), the robotic probe went in for a landing, and appeared to have successfully touched down on the asteroid’s surface.
Hayabusa2 was launched in 2014 to collect samples from Ryugu, an asteroid that orbits the sun between Earth and Mars and has a diameter of just more than a half mile. By returning to Earth next year with these specimens, the mission will help scientists seek clues about the solar system’s origins.
Earlier in the year, the spacecraft used explosives and a projectile to liberate rock from beneath the asteroid’s outer layers. In the latest operation, it descended to the surface of the asteroid before 9:30 p.m. Eastern time, attempting to swiftly grab a sample of material from the crater it made.
While the brief landing and return to a safe position above Ryugu appeared to be successful, the mission’s managers have not yet confirmed whether the spacecraft collected the sample it sought.
— Why are scientists studying this asteroid?
Asteroids are bits and pieces leftover from the disc of gas and dust that formed around the young sun and never quite coalesced into a planet. They contain some almost pristine compounds that help tell what the solar system was like 4.5 billion years ago.
Ryugu, as dark as coal, is a C-type, or carbonaceous, asteroid, meaning it is full of carbon molecules known as organics including possibly amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Such molecules are not always associated with biology and can form from chemical reactions in deep space, but asteroids could have seeded Earth with the organic matter that led to life.
About three-quarters of asteroids in the solar system fall into the C-type.
This space rock was discovered in 1999 and not given a name until 2015. Ryugu is named after Ryugu-jo, or dragon’s palace — a magical undersea palace in a Japanese folk tale.
— Why did Japan blow a crater in Ryugu?
Hayabusa2 already landed briefly on Ryugu’s surface, in February, and collected samples. But these surface materials have been exposed to the solar system’s weather. Studying them offers scientists a potential picture of Ryugu’s surface. But that debris will not reveal much about the asteroid’s geological history, just as the topsoil in your yard won’t tell you much about what your neighborhood was like during the last ice age.
Making a crater will offer clues to how asteroids similar to Ryugu respond to being struck by objects.
To create the dent in Ryugu, Hayabusa2 carried an impactor made of copper. According to the Planetary Society, a funnel containing plastic explosives hurled the copper projectile into the asteroid’s surface. The blast scattered material above the asteroid, altering an area with a diameter of just more than 30 feet and creating a crater with a depth of about 6 to 10 feet. The impact also darkened the region and caused some boulders to move.
— How did Hayabusa2 land on the asteroid?
In short, very quickly.
To collect material from the surface of the asteroid, Hayabusa2 targeted a small patch about 65 feet from the crater it created, not within the crater itself. The mission’s scientists think this spot is covered in material ejected from beneath the crater when the blast occurred.
The spacecraft tried to pull samples in through a device called a sampler horn, after firing a small projectile made of the metal tantalum — basically a bullet — at the asteroid’s surface. The landing, bullet firing and attempted collection took about one second, according to the Planetary Society. Hayabusa2 then rose from the surface and return to a safe distance near Ryugu.
Hayabusa2 already did this once in February. Because of that successful operation, the mission’s managers in Japan had to assess whether it was worth risking the spacecraft again.
After the spacecraft made low-altitude observations of the landing area in the first half of June, the team concluded that conditions were safe enough for a second landing, and that the scientific value of collecting subsurface materials from the asteroid merited the try.
— Isn’t NASA doing something like this too?
Yes. The Osiris-Rex spacecraft is surveying a carbon-rich asteroid known as Bennu, and it too will collect samples and return them to Earth (although it will not be making any craters on Bennu’s surface). Bennu is even smaller than Ryugu, about 500 yards wide. Osiris-Rex will not return with its samples until 2023. Early research results announced in March also revealed that Bennu is more rugged than expected, and that it is shooting rocks from its surface into space.
NASA and Japanese scientists plan to exchange samples of the two asteroids to compare the similarities and differences.
— Has Japan done this before?
As the 2 in Hayabusa2 indicates, this is the second time that JAXA, the Japanese space agency, has sent a spacecraft to an asteroid.
Hayabusa2 is an improved version of Hayabusa, which visited a stony asteroid, Itokawa, in 2005. Despite several technical problems at Itokawa, Hayabusa returned a capsule to Earth in 2010 containing 1,500 particles from the asteroid.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.