Japan successfully launched their Hayabusa-2 sample return mission to asteroid 1999 JU3, and JAXA reports the spacecraft is on course and in excellent shape, with its solar panels deployed. The H-IIA F26 rocket carrying the craft blasted off from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwest Japan at 1:22:04 p.m. local time on Dec 3, 2014 (04:22 UTC) , and about two hours later, the spacecraft separated from the rocket and entered its initial planned trajectory.
Hayabusa 2 has been communicating with JAXA mission control as it starts off on its journey to land on an asteroid in 2018 and retrieve rock and dust samples to be returned to Earth in late 2020.
The first Hayabusa spacecraft completed a successful — albeit nail-biting — mission to the asteroid Itokawa, returning samples to Earth in 2010 after first reaching the asteroid in 2005. The mission almost failed as the spacecraft was plagued by technical problems and it wasn’t certain if the mechanism used to capture the samples actually worked. Ultimately, after a circuitous and troubled-filled return trip home, the canister containing microscopic rock samples made a soft landing in Australia, the first time that samples from an asteroid had been brought back to Earth for study.
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Hayabusa 2’s target, Asteroid 1999 JU3 is approximately 914 meters (3,000 feet) in diameter, a little larger than Itokawa, and is roughly spherical in shape, while Itokawa had an oblong shape. 1999 JU3 has a rotation period of approximately 7.6 hours.
Relative size of Asteroid 1999 JU3. pic.twitter.com/lIHXVasJoY
— Ron Baalke (@RonBaalke) December 3, 2014
To avoid a repetition of the glitches experienced by the first Hayabusa spacecraft, JAXA made several changes. Hayabusa 2 has an updated ion propulsion engine as well as improved guidance and navigation systems, new antennas and a new altitude control system.
Hayabusa 2 has a mini rover called Minerva 2, and for Hayabusa 2’s sample-collecting activities, a slowly descending impactor will be used, detonating upon contact with the surface instead of the high-speed projectile used by the first Hayabusa.
This video explains the Hayabusa 2 mission and how it differs from the first Hayabusa spacecraft:
JAXA’s Hayabusa website will provide current updates to the mission.