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JAXA's Hayabusa-2 touches down on asteroid Ryugu

By Brooks Hays

Feb. 21 (UPI) -- The Japanese Space Agency's Hayabusa-2 probe has touched down on asteroid Ryugu.

At 5:52 p.m. ET, early Friday morning in Japan, officials confirmed the touchdown was successful. There was no word on whether rock and dust samples were collected.

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"The Doppler data showed the behavior as expected and cheers went up with a clap!," Hayabusa-2's Twitter account tweeted.

JAXA also offered a live stream of the event, including expert commentary.

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The asteroid-circling spacecraft didn't land so much as delicately brush the surface of Ryugu. Prior to its visit, the probe fired a tantalum pellet at the asteroid surface. The 650-mile-per-hour collision was intended to create a plume of dust and debris for Hayabusa-2 and its Sampler Horn instrument to scoop up.

Shortly after the sampling attempt, officials confirmed the probe ascended to a safe distance from the asteroid and was once again in communication with mission control.

"We have confirmed the spacecraft began to rise as planned. This was announced by the Project Manager and everyone clapped again," the mission's Twitter account tweeted.

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Hayabusa-2 first rendezvoused with Ryugu in June of last year after a 3.5-year journey. Over the last several months, the spacecraft has been circling the asteroid and surveying its surface. Images of the space rock's surface allowed scientists to select ideal landing locations.

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Tonight's touchdown was just the first of three sample collection attempts. The rock and dust samples will be returned to Earth in 2020.

Astronomers consider Ryugu a potentially hazardous asteroid, as its orbit around the sun brings it rather close to Earth. A collision with an asteroid Ryugu's size could do considerable damage. Current calculations suggest it could pass within 59,000 miles of Earth.

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But scientists are mostly interested in Ryugu because they predict the space rock will provide insights into the solar system's early evolution.

"Studying Ryugu could tell humanity not only about Ryugu's surface and interior, but about what materials were available in the early Solar System for the development of life," according to NASA.

Ryugu samples could help scientists better understand how carbon-rich asteroids like it migrate from distant asteroid belts.

"We believe carbon-rich asteroids may have significant amounts of water locked up in their rocks. It's possible such asteroids may have brought to Earth both the water and the organic material necessary for life to start," Alan Fitzsimmons, astronomer at Queen's University Belfast, told BBC News. "These samples will be crucial in investigating this possibility."

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