The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) unveiled a new space probe that is expected to be launched later this year on a mission to an asteroid to help unravel the mystery of how life began in our solar system.
Developed at a cost of about 28.9 billion yen ($280 million), the Hayabusa 2 will collect rock samples from 1999 JU3, a nearly spherical asteroid about 900 meters in diameter with an orbit that brings it close to the Earth and Mars.
“(The Hayabusa 2 project) will be a touchstone mission in our endeavor to explore space,” said Hitoshi Kuninaka, a JAXA official handling the project.
At 1.6 meters by 1 and 1.25 meters tall, the Hayabusa 2 is almost the same size as its predecessor, Hayabusa, which in 2010 became the world’s first spacecraft to return to Earth with samples from an asteroid named Itokawa.
When its solar panels are spread, the new 600-kilogram spacecraft has a width of 6 meters.
Unlike Itokawa, 1999 JU3 is a type of asteroid that has more carbon components. This means the samples taken from it may contain organic substances and minerals with water that could provide clues to the origins of life.
The Hayabusa 2 will be launched from the Tanegashima Space Center on Tanegashima in Kagoshima Prefecture. It is expected to return to Earth in 2020.