(Bloomberg) -- After a four-year chase, a probe from Japan’s space agency called Hayabusa 2, or “Falcon,” pounced on its prey 300 million kilometers away.
Around 8:00 a.m. on Friday Tokyo time, the space ship touched down on Ryugu, a 450-million-ton carbonaceous rock in an orbit between Earth and Mars, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. It was a precision landing on a patch of even ground six meters across, about the size of a baseball pitcher’s mound on a surface studded with boulders. Touchdown lasted only a few seconds, with the probe firing an explosive charge into the ground, collecting the ejected debris and lifting off.
Hayabusa 2’s predecessor made history in 2005 when it became the first ever probe to land on an asteroid, called Itokawa. But it failed to fire the projectile and came back with only a handful of dust. A richer sample could help scientists learn more about the formation of the solar system roughly 4.5 billion years ago and composition of heavenly bodies. Hayabusa 2 and a similar mission by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration could serve as templates for commercial space exploration, according to Chris Lewicki, who ran asteroid-mining startup Planetary Resources for almost a decade.
“The level of surface exploration is unprecedented,” said Lewicki, who is now a co-founder of a space venture at ConsenSys, a blockchain startup that acquired Planetary Resources in October. “And getting into the undersurface of the asteroid is extremely interesting, not only scientifically but also for understanding resources.”
Hayabusa 2 has been orbiting the asteroid since June, studying the planetoid with an array of sensors that includes near-infrared spectrometer, thermal-infrared imager and a Lidar to map the surface and determine its rotation speed and gravity. In September, it dropped two rovers, for the first-ever mobile exploration of an asteroid surface.
Ryugu, measuring about 900 meters in diameter, was nicknamed after a magical underwater palace in a Japanese folktale that mirrors the Greek myth of Pandora. The rock showed no traces of water which could be used to extract hydrogen for rocket fuel -- a disappointment for would-be asteroid miners like Lewicki.
“One of the first things we are interested in asteroids like Ryugu for is creating gas stations in space,” he said. “But this mission has already been a big step forward.”
Planetary Resources estimates the value of Ryugu for mining purposes at close to $83 billion. Bennu, the target of Nasa’s mission, is worth around $670 million. Hayabusa 2 is due to return to Earth late next year, while Nasa’s Osiris Rex probe is scheduled to bring back its sample in 2021.
“We are taking stuff from a surface of a planetary body and bringing it back,” Hayabusa 2’s project manager, Yuichi Tsuda, said at a briefing ahead of the landing. “This is pretty rudimentary, but we think it counts as a first step toward resource mining in space.”
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