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Japan to seek seeds of life in asteroid mission

posted 23 Nov 2012, 03:45 by Mpelembe   [ updated 23 Nov 2012, 03:46 ]

Japan's space agency, JAXA, is preparing for a mission to an asteroid where it hopes to find clues to the origins of life on Earth. In 2010 a similar mission successfuly brought asteroid samples back to Earth for examination but this next attempt, set for 2014, is aiming even higher.

SAGAMIHARA CITY, KANAGAWA PREFECTUREJAPAN (RECENT) (REUTERS) -  At Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) Sagamihara campus onTokyo's outskirts, plans are being prepared for one of the most ambitious space missions ever attempted.

Led by the agency's Lunar and Planetary Exploration Program Group Program DirectorHitoshi Kuninaka, JAXA intends to send a spacecraft to the distant asteroid, 1999 JU3, following up on the success of the agency's seven-year Hyabusa 1 mission to the asteroid Itokawa.

Hyabusa 1 was launched in May 2003 and reached Itokawa two and half years later. The vehicle managed to land on the asteroid, but experienced problems with its specimen collecting hardware. As scientists discovered soon after Hyabusa 1 landed back on Earth in the Australian outback, the samples were smaller and less numerous than they had hoped for but painstaking analysis of all 1500 grains collected is still underway. The scientists hope the results will shed light on the chemical make-up of asteroids, believed to have formed at the dawn of the solar system.

With updated equipment, Kuninaka says Hyabusa 2 should be able to achieve what its predecessor couldn't.

"As for our scientific goal, we hope to get older information than is possible from stone-type asteroids from this type of carbon asteroid by taking samples. We hope to find the key to the creation of the solar system and the birth of life," he said.

Hyabusa 2's target asteroid is an older asteroid scientists believe contains organic matter that may have contributed to life on Earth.

Most so-called carbonaceous asteroids orbit in the asteroid belt between between Mars and Jupiter but 1999 JU3 travels close enough to Earth for a spacecraft like Hyabusa 2 to reach it in about two years. The craft will be powered by an ion engine to arrive at the asteroid in mid-2018.

Like Hyabusa 1, the craft is designed to deploy projectiles to blast a crater into the asteroid, then land to collect samples produced by the explosion. Its mission will begin by mapping the surface of the asteroid. It will then touch down on the surface twice to deploy small explosives designed to create small clouds of debris for collection. A third touch down will be preceded by the release of a large impactor, intended to explode above the surface to create a crater into which the craft will land for collection of larger samples.

"We plan to impact into the asteroid and create a new manmade crater. At that point it's then possible to take a sample of the fresher material inside the crater or the material knocked out from the crater," Kuninaka said.

Kuninaka says the data gathered from the mission could also help future attempts to travel further into the solar system, with asteroids acting as stepping stones to destinations such as Mars.

"It's known that there's quite a few asteroids that have a water on them. In that sense, when humans look to work in space then asteroids can become a very important milestone. If humans are going to go out into space it should be a foot step," Kuninaka said.

And in the event that an asteroid should ever pose a threat to Earth, Kuninaka says the Hyabusa missions will be instructive.

"Even if you launch something into it, in alot of cases asteroids can just absorb the impact and not create a very large crater. For example, even if you are trying to destroy an asteroid, thinking about what sort of method is the most effective thinking about what type of method is most effective is important. So this mission's information on how to create a new crater could also be used for reference in the future," Kuninaka said.

The mission is expected to cost about US$400 million, US$150 million more than the first Hyabusa mission. If all goes according to plan, Kuninaka says Hyabusa 2 will return to Earth loaded with samples he hopes will reveal the origins of life.