Japan’s space agency said Tuesday its Hayabusa2 probe is now homeward bound after activating its main engines following completion of its mission to collect samples from an asteroid.
The probe is scheduled to travel around 800 million kilometers to deliver the samples from the Ryugu asteroid to Earth in November or December next year, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
Hayabusa2 left the asteroid on Nov. 13, five years after its launch, and tested its ion engines from Nov. 20 to Monday before beginning the return journey.
If organic matter is found in the samples, it could lead to a potential breakthrough in looking at the formation of the solar system and life on Earth.
The agency has said it will consider releasing the capsules containing rock samples from the Ryugu asteroid toward Earth at an altitude equivalent to the distance between Earth and the Moon as an option to avoid the planet’s gravitational pull and a disruption of the probe’s trajectory. Once the samples are released from space to Earth, the probe will begin another mission.
Launched in December 2014 from the Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima Prefecture, Hayabusa2 reached Ryugu in June last year. The asteroid’s subsurface rock, unaffected by solar flares, is believed to have retained the same state since the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago.
The probe touched down on Ryugu twice and, after creating an artificial crater by shooting a copper projectile at the asteroid, succeeded in collecting the first-ever asteroid subsurface samples.
JAXA confirmed that the Hayabusa2 is in a normal condition and steadily accelerating.
“To everyone on Earth, we just sent out presents from Ryugu,” JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda said in a statement released on Twitter. “Please wait with big hopes and a little worry.”