A Japanese spacecraft that successfully "bombed" an asteroid after a journey of more than 3 billion miles through space is close to returning to Earth.
Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft is slated to drop at least 100 milligrams of the near-Earth asteroid, Ryugu, in Woomera, Australia, on Dec. 6. After that, it will continue its journey to visit additional asteroid targets.
“We are now on a landing course for Earth," Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda said on Friday. "The altitude will now gradually decrease towards Woomera. Fasten your seatbelt firmly and if you are travelling with young children, please assist them. The landing approach direction is scheduled to be 1-5-0.”
Scientists at JAXA believe the samples, especially those taken from under Ryugu's surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors.
In February 2019, Hayabusa2 briefly touched down onto Ryugu and fired a scientific research “bullet” into the space rock, collecting samples.
A few months later, in April, the craft dropped a small explosive box that sent a copper ball the size of a baseball slamming into the asteroid, ultimately to collect samples. The samples were collected in July 2019 and are believed to contain traces of carbon and organic matter in the asteroid soil samples.
The asteroid may provide answers to the origin of our solar system, according to NASA.
Makoto Yoshikawa, a Hayabusa2 project mission manager, said scientists are especially interested in analyzing organic materials in the Ryugu soil samples.
“Organic materials are origins of life on Earth, but we still don(asterisk)t know where they came from,” Yoshikawa said. “We are hoping to find clues to the origin of life on Earth by analyzing details of the organic materials brought back by Hayabusa2.”
Hayabusa2, which started its return journey to Earth in August 2019, will drop off the precious cargo, then continue on its journey. It will next perform a fly-by of asteroid (98943) 2001 CC21 in July 2026 and a rendezvous with asteroid 1998 KY26 in July 2031.
The craft, which is operated by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, is believed to have captured at least 100 milligrams of Ryugu, drop the sample and then continue on t
Launched on Dec. 3, 2014, Hayabusa2 arrived at Ryugu on June 27, 2018, when the asteroid was almost 170 million miles from Earth. Its journey back to Earth was shorter due to the current locations of Ryugu and Earth.
The asteroid, which is roughly 180 million miles from Earth, is named Ryugu ("Dragon Palace" in Japanese) after an undersea palace in a Japanese folktale.
The Associated Press and Fox News' James Rogers contributed to this story.