A Japanese space probe named after a falcon blasted off on Wednesday, setting off on a six-year round trip to an asteroid for samples that scientists hope will help reveal the origins of life. The launch of the Hayabusa 2, postponed twice because of bad weather, comes less than a month after a European Space Agency probe landed on a comet in a pioneering mission. Hayabusa means peregrine falcon in Japanese. The probe will map the surface of the asteroid before touching down, deploying small explosives to blast a crater and then collect resulting debris.
Today, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched Hayabusa2, kicking off a six-year sample return mission to the asteroid 1999 JU3, a primordial C-type asteroid thought to be rich in water and organic materials. The agency already has plenty of practice with wrangling asteroid samples. In June 2010, the original Hayabusa spacecraft delivered flecks of asteroid 25143 Itokawa safely back to the Earth, capping off of seven-year journey. Hayabusa remains the first and only successful asteroid sample return mission (NASA’s Stardust mission achieved similar results, but with a comet, Wild-2). The samples returned in 2010, consisting of 1534 dust particles, revealed that Itokawa was ripped apart at one point, which yielded insights about how to break up an asteroid that might be on a collision course with Earth. It also represented the first steps towards asteroid-mining, which is already being bandied about as a major industry of the future.