Hayabusa2 is a Japanese asteroid-sampling spacecraft that launched in December 2014. It is currently on the way to asteroid 162173 Ryugu and will arrive there between June and July 2018, according to the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The mission is a follow-up of Hayabusa, which returned samples of asteroid 25143 Itokawa to Earth in 2010 despite numerous technical difficulties.
A year after launch, Hayabusa2 briefly returned to Earth. The spacecraft made a planned flyby to get a speed boost by using the Earth's gravitational field. Meanwhile, astronomers are doing periodic observations of Ryugu to gather information ahead of the spacecraft's arrival. The 600-kg spacecraft is expected to remain at the asteroid for 18 months, and return to Earth in 2020 with samples on board.
Hayabusa2 was first selected by Japan's Space Activities Commission in 2006, and received funding in August 2010 (shortly after Hayabusa's return). The cost is estimated at 16.4 billion yen ($150 million).
- Ion engine: Improving the lifespan of the neutralizers (which failed on Hayabusa) by strengthening the internal magnetic field. Also, more careful checks of the ion engine will be performed to improve its propulsion generation and ignition stability.
- Sampler mechanism: Better seal performance, more compartments and an improved mechanism for picking up material from the surface. On Hayabusa, it was unclear at the time of sample collection if it had actually picked up something from the surface.
- Re-entry capsule: JAXA has added an instrument to measure acceleration, movement and interior temperatures during flight. (The Hayabusa capsule broke up during re-entry.)
- Flat antennas: Instead of Hayabusa's parabolic antenna, Hayabusa2 will have flat antennas. This will allow it to have the same communications capacity as Hayabusa, while saving on weight (and launch fuel). "A flat antenna can perform to the same capacity as a parabolic antenna due to technological improvements ... Thanks to the flat design, the weight of the antenna is reduced to one-fourth, compared to a parabolic antenna whose performance is the same." JAXA said.
Here are the major instruments of the mission:
- Small Carry-on Impactor (SCI): This will create an artificial crater on the surface of the asteroid. Hayabusa2 will look at the changes on the surface before and after the impact takes place. They will also sample the crater to get "fresh" materials from underground.
- Near InfraRed Spectrometer (NIRS3) and Thermal Infrared Imager (TIR): The spectrometer will look at mineral composition of the asteroid, and the properties of water there. The imager will study the temperature and thermal inertia (resistance to changing temperature) of the asteroid.
- The small rovers MINERVA-II: Three small rovers will bounce along the surface and collect data from close-up. They are successors to the MINERVA rover aboard Hayabusa, which failed to meet its target after launch.
- A small lander (MASCOT): This is a lander that will jump only once after it arrives on the surface. It will also perform close-up observations of the surface. This instrument is built by DLR (Germany's space agency) and the CNES (France's space agency).
Japan chose a different type of asteroid to study for Hayabusa2. The goal is to collect information about a wide variety of asteroids across the solar system. Ryugu is a C-type asteroid, meaning that it is carbonaceous; with a high percentage of carbon, this is the most common type of asteroid in the solar system. (The target for Hayabusa was Itokawa, an S-type asteroid — meaning that it is made up more of stony materials and nickel iron.)
Ryugu is an older type of body than Itokawa, and likely contains more organic or hydrated minerals, JAXA stated. Organics and water are key elements for life on Earth, although their presence on other bodies doesn't necessarily mean life itself. "We expect to clarify the origin of life by analyzing samples acquired from a primordial celestial body such as a C-type asteroid to study organic matter and water in the solar system, and how they co-exist while affecting each other," JAXA said.