Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft successfully touched down today on asteroid Ryugu, more than 200 million miles from Earth, during an operation aimed at blasting away and collecting a sample from the space rock.
The 18-foot-wide spacecraft was programmed to extend a yard-long tube to touch the surface, shoot a bullet made of tantalum into the asteroid and collect the bits of rock and dust thrown up by the impact.
In a series of tweets, the mission management team said telemetry confirmed that the bullet was fired and that the spacecraft was heading back to its stationkeeping position, 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) above the asteroid.
“Based on this, we determined touchdown was successful!” the Hayabusa 2 team tweeted. “A detailed analysis will now be done.”
An image captured by the probe just after sample collection shows a closeup view of the asteroid’s surface, including the H-shaped shadow of Hayabusa 2 and its solar panels. Dark markings at the center of the image represent material that was disturbed during the sample collection operation, and there appear to be flecks of dust on the camera lens.
Hayabusa 2 follows up on Japan’s first Hayabusa mission, which brought back samples from a smaller asteroid in 2010. This latest spacecraft arrived at Ryugu this summer and dropped off two mini-rovers as well as a European-built lander for earlier scientific studies.
Bringing back samples of the asteroid, which is thought to contain water and other chemical building blocks of the early solar system, is the main goal of the Hayabusa 2 mission. The spacecraft is designed to make as many as three sample collection attempts.
Late this year, Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to begin the return journey from Ryugu, which is named after a dragon’s undersea palace in Japanese folk tales. The spacecraft is due to drop off its samples by the end of 2020. Only then will scientists know exactly what they’ve got.
Update for 8:30 a.m. PT Feb. 22: We’ve added the closeup image that was captured shortly after Hayabusa 2 began retreating from the asteroid. Hat tip to Daniel Fischer, Igor Smolic, Shinsuke Abe and the Planetary Society’s Jason Davis for posting the picture on Twitter.