With all the news about the exploits of the Philae lander, another daring mission to land a spacecraft on a cosmic body has been overlooked — the Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa 2, which is scheduled to launch on Wednesday and land on an asteroid.
Hayabusa 1 was the second spacecraft to land on an asteroid, following NASA’s NEAR-Shoemaker mission. Hayabusa 1 was the first spacecraft to retrieve and return samples from an asteroid, but despite the mission’s success, not everything went as planned. It actually landed twice on Asteroid 25143 Itokawa in November, 2005 because the spacecraft’s sample retrieval system didn’t operate at full capacity. So while it did manage to extract some samples, they amounted to a small fraction of what JAXA had hoped to retrieve.
Hayabusa 2 will hopefully correct those mistakes. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will arrive at asteroid 1993IU3 in June 2018, and a lander similar to Philae will hang out on the asteroid’s surface for roughly a year and a half, gathering samples. It is scheduled to leave the asteroid in December 2019, and return those samples to Earth at the end of 2020, after the craft parachutes down to the Australian outback.
Hayabusa 2 will launch on top of a H-IIA rocket, and is a pretty different design than Hayabusa 1, which wasn’t really a lander. This trip will include the MASCOT lander, which has the capabilities to perform analyses, and three MINERVA landers, which can take photos and measurements. The spacecraft will also have a device that uses explosives to reveal rock buried far under the asteroid’s surface, so the lander can grab some samples from deeper down.
Hayabusa 2 was actually scheduled to launch on Sunday, but has been delayed due to weather. First it was clouds, which pushed the launch from Sunday to Monday, but then the 48-hour forecast predicted high winds, so JAXA delayed the launch to Wednesday. Fortunately, there are some pretty strict guidelines for launch when it comes to the weather. As of right now, Wednesday’s forecast looks good. Let’s hope it turns out that way — the launch window for Hayabusa ends on December 9. Should the weather or mechanical systems get feisty enough to delay the launch that long, the next opening wouldn’t be until July 2015.
Whenever it happens, the mission will provide important details for potential asteroid-mining companies, as well as for near-Earth asteroid protection missions.