by Douglas Messier
Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft is not scheduled to return its precious cargo of soil samples of asteroid Ryugu to Earth for 16 more months, but it has already begun to pack up for home.
“In an operation today (August 26), the sample catcher was stored in the re-entry capsule (see figure). The sampler and capsule teams gathered to watch and the operation was completed successfully. The capsule is now ready for Earth return!” JAXA tweeted.
The spacecraft is scheduled to depart Ryugu in November or December 2019 after orbiting the asteroid for 17 to 18 months. It will then begin a trip that will return its re-entry capsule to Earth at the end of 2020.
JAXA has selected Australia’s Woomera Prohibited Area for the recovery of the capsule.
The agency has worked out a cooperative arrangement with the Australian Space Agency and the Department of Defence.
Before it heads back to Earth, Hayabusa2 has got a bit more work to do. JAXA is preparing to deploy the MINERVA-II2 lander to the surface of Ryugu.
Before MINERVA-II2 is deployed, JAXA will send down two target markers that will be used to measure Ryugu’s gravitational field. This operation is currently planned for Sept. 5.
Meanwhile, JAXA got a pleasant surprise earlier this month when it received data from the MINERVA-II1A (HIBOU) and MINERVA-II1B (OWL) hoppers that landed on Ryugu last September.
The hoppers had been in hibernation in the cold of space, but became active again as Ryugu approached the Sun. Controllers are considering an operational plan for the two small probes.