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The Falcon has landed. JAXA’s Hayabusa2 probe (Hayabusa is “falcon” in Japanese) not only touched down on the asteroid Ryugu to collect samples on Thursday, but made a perfect touchdown.
Thursday was the second time Hayabusa2 has landed on the asteroid Ryugu after it first got its feet on the space rock in February. Then it blasted a bullet into the object to kick up dust that it could eventually bring back. This time, it went even further by collecting pristine subsurface material that had been exposed by another, more intense blast back in April. This is a huge deal because it’s the first time humanity has gotten a sample of any cosmic object further than the moon.
“From the data sent from Hayabusa2, it has been confirmed that the touchdown sequence, including the discharge of a projectile for sampling, was completed successfully,” JAXA said in a statement. “Hayabusa2 is functioning normally, and thus the second touchdown ended with success."
This touchdown was by far trickier than the last one. If there were any glitches at all, it could mean the probe would lose everything it already had stored from its last landing. The April blast had Hayabusa2 firing an “impactor” on Ryugu’s surface to expose the priceless material that landed around 65 feet from the middle of the crater. These materials are believed to be different from the rest of the crater, which is getting the astronomical community even more anxious for the probe’s return to Earth next year.
Ryugu (which translates to “Dragon Palace” and is named for a mythological castle at the bottom of the ocean) is 185 million miles from Earth. Compare that to 238,900 miles for our satellite. That kind of a difference almost makes it seem like you could literally jump to the moon.
Hayabusa2 has now completed a seven-year mission that involved many obstacles. During this time, it has sent rovers and robots to explore the surface of Ryugu, but the samples it just got its proverbial hands on are so groundbreaking because they could possibly give us a glimpse into the solar system as it was right after the Big Bang. Think of them as a sort of portal that will take us back in time some 4.6 billion years.
If there’s anything almost as cool as that, it’s that Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May created stereoscopic images of Ryugu and just sent JAXA a video in support of the mission right before touchdown. Talk about being the champions.