Japan’s space agency said Wednesday its Hayabusa2 space probe had departed from an asteroid where it had landed to collect samples, and will now travel some 800 million kilometers to deliver them to Earth in November or December of next year.
The probe’s homeward journey, which had previously been scheduled to start by the end of this year, was brought forward after it successfully accomplished its planned tasks.
It departed from the Ryugu asteroid at 10:05 a.m. Japan time on Wednesday morning, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said.
“We’re grateful to (Hayabusa2) for fulfilling its challenging missions and we would like it to carry on with its final task (of this mission),” JAXA’s mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa said.
Hayabusa2 was launched to gain clues about the formation of the solar system and the origins of life through its mission to probe the asteroid, where underground materials are believed to have retained their state — unaffected by solar flares — from when the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago.
On its return it will release a capsule containing the samples, which is predicted to land in the desert of South Australia, JAXA said.
Hayabusa2 began traveling away from Ryugu at a speed of around 0.09 meters per second, and will continue to take images of the asteroid as it retreats.
The space probe will adjust its position when it is 65 km from Ryugu, a distance at which it will be beyond the asteroid’s gravitational pull. It is expected to do that sometime around Monday.
The probe will then test its ion engine, which is its main source of propulsion, through Dec. 2, before accelerating and traveling to the Earth’s vicinity.
“All of us are satisfied and have no complaints with what we accomplished,” said Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for the probe, in a briefing Tuesday. “We’re grateful to the Ryugu asteroid and are honestly sad about leaving it.”
With more than 110 papers already published based on the Hayabusa2’s findings, the data collected from the space probe is expected to continue to be used to support Japan’s research on asteroids.
The Hayabusa2 will be sent out on another mission once the capsule containing the samples is released to Earth.
Launched in December 2014 from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, Hayabusa2 reached Ryugu in June last year.
The probe touched down on Ryugu twice, and succeeded in collecting the first-ever asteroid subsurface samples after creating an artificial crater by shooting a copper projectile at the asteroid.
If organic matter is found in the samples, it could lead to a potential breakthrough for research into the creation of the solar system and life on Earth.