Japanese spacecraft touches down on asteroid to get samples

Associate Prof. Yuichi Tsuda of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) using an image of the surface of the asteroid Ryugu speaks about the touchdown by the Hayabusa2 spacecraft during a press conference in Sagamihara, near Tokyo, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (Kyodo News via AP)

Tokyo (AP) – A Japanese spacecraft touched down on a distant asteroid Friday, Feb. 22, on a mission to collect material that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth.

Workers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency control center applauded Friday as a signal sent from space indicated the Hayabusa2 spacecraft had touched down.

During the touchdown, Hayabusa2 is programmed to extend a pipe and shoot a pinball-like object into the asteroid to blow up material from beneath the surface. If that succeeds, the craft would then collect samples to eventually be sent back to Earth. Three such touchdowns are planned.

Japanese Education Minister Masahiko Shibayama said the space agency had concluded from its data after the first touchdown that the steps to collect samples were performed successfully.

JAXA, as the Japanese space agency is known, has likened the touchdown attempts to trying to land on a baseball mound from the spacecraft’s operating location of 20 kilometers (12 miles) above the asteroid.

The asteroid, named Ryugu after an undersea palace in a Japanese folktale, is about 900 meters in diameter and 280 million kilometers from Earth.