Japan spacecraft samples asteroid soil

Yuichi Tsuda points at an image showing the surface of the asteroid Ryugu

Japan says its deep space probe has successfully landed on a distant asteroid and collected samples that scientists hope will unveil the clues about the origin of the solar system.

The probe will also collect rock samples from underground that were fragmented when the probe first fired a projectile making an artificial crater in April, JAXA said.

Hayabusa2 is the first spacecraft to successfully collect underground samples from an asteroid.

Since these will come from inside the asteroid, they will not have been exposed to the harsh environment of space.

Spokesman Takayuki Tomobe from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said: "The touchdown is successful".

"It was a success, a big success", Mr Kubota said. "We achieved success in all scheduled procedures". JAXA said the particles could include water and organic materials.

"We obtained pieces of the history of the solar system".

"This is the second touchdown, but doing a touchdown is a challenge whether it's the first or the second", Mr Yuichi Tsuda, Hayabusa2 project manager, told reporters ahead of the mission. "Nobody has collected and brought home underground materials from anywhere further than the moon". Asteroids are building materials leftover from the formation of the Solar System.

The spacecraft will bring the samples to Earth, where these will be studied.

The brief landing Thursday is the second time Hayabusa2 has touched down on the deserted asteroid Ryugu, some 300 million kilometers (185 million miles) from Earth. Hayabusa2 should return to its landing site in Woomera, South Australia by the end of 2020, Before that, it will deploy the samples into Earth's atmosphere. The probe is expected to briefly land about 20m away from the center of that crater in order to collect samples of whatever materials were ejected from the impact three months ago.

The spacecraft started its gradual descent to the asteroid on Wednesday.

In the final landing phase on Thursday, Hayabusa2 hovered at the height of 30 metres (100ft) above the asteroid and quickly found its landing marker left from the earlier mission. He said that by eliminating each they were able to take on a second landing with confidence. The probe had initially been working above the Ryugu asteroid before its landing.

At about the size of a large refrigerator and equipped with solar panels to keep it powered, Hayabusa2 is the successor to JAXA's first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa - Japanese for falcon.

"Everything went perfectly, even better than flawless, as if Hayabusa were reading our minds", he said. But at least for the near future, Japan is the only nation that will have acquired samples from both the surface and interior of an asteroid, Watanabe said. "I'm so excited about finding out about all these unknowns".

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