Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe to head for Earth

TOKYO (AFP) – Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe will leave its orbit around a distant asteroid and head for Earth today after an unprecedented mission, carrying samples that could shed light on the origins of the Solar System.

The long voyage home would begin at 10.05am, with the probe expected to drop off its precious samples some time late 2020, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said.

“We expect Hayabusa-2 will provide new scientific knowledge to us,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda told reporters.

The probe will bring back to Earth “carbon and organic matter” that will provide data as to “how the matter is scattered around the Solar System, why it exists on the asteroid and how it is related to Earth,” added Tsuda.

The mission took the fridge-sized probe some 300 million kilometres from Earth, where it explored the asteroid Ryugu, whose name means ‘Dragon Palace’ in Japanese – a reference to a castle at the bottom of the ocean in an ancient fable.

In April, Hayabusa-2 fired an “impactor” into the asteroid to stir up materials that had not previously been exposed to the atmosphere.