Over 200 million miles away, a tiny asteroid is orbiting the Sun. Orbiting that asteroid is an even smaller object, but this one is manmade. It’s the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, built by Japan and launched in 2014. Today, it will perform the mission it was sent to do: briefly graze an asteroid and collect a sample before heading home.
Hayabusa 2 has been orbiting the asteroid Ryugu since June of last year, and in that time it’s been pretty busy. It’s taken plenty of orbital photos of the asteroid, collected all kinds of measurements, and even sent two rovers and a stationary lander to the surface. But it’s main mission is a sample return: Hayabusa is meant to collect a small piece of the asteroid and bring it back to the Earth.
That collection process is not an easy one. Hayabusa 2 can never land on the surface of Ryugu, and neither of the rovers nor the lander have enough fuel to bring a sample back to the spacecraft. Instead, Hayabusa will perform something like a ‘drive-by’ sample collection.
The spacecraft will slowly drift closer and closer to the surface of the asteroid, and when it’s nearly close enough to touch the spacecraft will fire a projectile into the surface. That projectile will kick up some dust and other debris for the spacecraft to collect. Once the collection is successful, Hayabusa will return to a safe orbital altitude and prepare to go home.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the collection process will go off without a hitch. Hayabusa has to make a lot of rapid altitude adjustments, and the asteroid isn’t exactly flat. Ryugu has hills and rocks that Hayabusa has to expertly dodge while it gets close enough to perform the sample collection manoeuvre.
Still, this is something that the Hayabusa team have been preparing for for months, so it’s unlikely anything will go wrong. And if it does, the spacecraft can always back off and try again some other time.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics