Hayabusa2 deployed three rovers and a lander on the Ryugu asteroid, which collected samples of the asteroid's surface. The return mission has been officially approved to land in Australia on December 6th. (Image Credit: JAXA/Akihiro Ikeshita)


On August 19th, 2020, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced that its Hayabusa2 spacecraft had been approved to land in Australia on December 6th. The space cargo is returning to Earth while carrying sample material that was captured from a near-Earth asteroid called Ryugu. For some time, JAXA planned on landing the capsule in Australia, but this announcement officially marks the country's approval of the plan.


The spacecraft launched on December 3rd, 2014 and rendezvoused with the asteroid on June 27th, 2018. The mission took place after the initial Hayabusa mission, which returned samples from the asteroid Itokawa. This is the very first asteroid that was targeted for a sample return mission and the only mission that successfully returned asteroid samples to Earth.


During its 18-month stay on Ryugu, Hayabusa2 deployed a lander and three rovers, gathered samples from the rocky surface, fired a bullet to create an artificial crater and captured some of the subsurface material uncovered by the impact. The collection of different samples is useful for scientists since they can study Ryugu's interior and how the harsh forces of outer space, like the solar wind, have affected it. Scientists can also perform a more detailed analysis in laboratories on Earth, which is why the capsule needs to land.


The spacecraft deployed MINERVA-II1A and MINERVA-II1B, the first two rovers on September 21st, 2018, when Hayabusa2 was 180 feet above the asteroid's surface. These robots measure 7" wide x 2.8" tall with a mass of 2.1 lbs. Instead of rolling around like the Mars rovers, the robots hopped to each place on Ryugu. MASCOT, the lander, deployed shortly after. It moves similar to the other three, and it was operating for 17 hours. All of the data it gathered was successfully sent to the Hayabusa2 spacecraft.


Four of the cameras on Rover-1A and three cameras on Rover-1B were used in this mission to produce a stereo image of Ryugu's surface.


"The approval to carry out the re-entry and recovery operations of the Hayabusa2 return sample capsule is a significant milestone. We would like to express our sincere gratitude for the support of the Australian government as well as multiple organizations in Australia for their cooperation," JAXA president Hiroshi Yamakawa said. "We will continue to prepare for the successful mission in December 2020 in close cooperation with the Australian government."


Once the spacecraft flies past Earth to deposit the sample capsule, it is expected to hold 30 kg of xenon propellant, which can extend its service and explore new targets. Currently, there are two missions being considered for a mission extension. The first one is a Venus flyby in 2024, which sets up Hayabusa2 for an encounter with AV43, a near-Earth asteroid. Additionally, the spacecraft could make infrared observations of Venus during its flyby. The second mission for Hayabusa2 would be for it to be sent to another near-Earth asteroid named KY26 in July 2031.


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