TOKYO - A Japanese space probe launched last year passed by Earth on Thursday to harness the planet’s gravitational pull to propel it toward a far away asteroid in its quest to study the origin of the solar system, authorities said.
The explorer, named “Hayabusa 2”, conducted an “Earth swing-by” and came as close as 3,090 kilometres (2,000 miles) above ground after 7 pm (1000 GMT), before switching its orbit to continue toward tiny Ryugu asteroid , according to simulation data made available on a website managed by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The space agency will now spend about a week analysing whether the probe has gone into the correct orbit, according to local media, including the Mainichi Shimbun daily.
Hayabusa 2 was launched a year ago aboard Japan’s main H-IIA rocket from Tanegashima Space Center for its six-year mission to bring back mineral samples from the asteroid . It is expected to reach Ryugu, named after a mythical castle in a Japanese folk tale, in mid-2018 and spend around 18 months in the area. It will also drop rover robots and a “landing package” that includes equipment for surface observation. If all goes well, soil samples will be returned to Earth in late 2020.
Analysing the extra-terrestrial materials could help shed light on the birth of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago and offer clues about what gave rise to life on Earth , scientists have said.
The probe is the successor to JAXA’s first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa - the Japanese term for falcon - which returned to Earth in 2010 with dust samples after a seven-year mission. The Ryugu asteroid , which is around a kilometre (half a mile) across, is believed to contain significantly more organic matter and water than the potato-shaped rock studied by the original Hayabusa.