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Japan launches space probe to rendevous with an asteriod

In one of the most ambitious asteroid missions ever attempted, Japan launched it new Hayabusa2 space probe on Dec. 2 from the Tanegashima Space Center, according to a CBS News report on Dec. 3.

The Hayabusa2 will spend about 18 months flying in close formation with asteroid 1999 JU3 and even release a copper impactor designed to blast out a small crater in the asteroid’s surface. The probe will then attempt to collect pristine subsurface soil samples that could hold clues about the role asteroids might have played in seeding Earth with the water and organic compounds necessary for life.

“Scientists want to get materials from inside of the asteroid,” Hayabusa2 project manager Hitoshi Kuninaka said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “That is a very difficult operation. Once we release the impactor, it will be ignited about 40 minutes later. We cannot stop that ignition, so before the ignition, the spacecraft will do an escape maneuver to the other side of the asteroid (to) avoid serious damage. I think that is one of the most difficult operations we have ever done.”

According to mission managers with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, Hayabusa2 could collect up to a gram — .035 ounce — of material before returning to Earth.

The Hayabusa2 mission comes on the heels of the European Space Agency’s successful rendezvous with a comet with its Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander, which made the first touchdown on a comet Nov. 12. Hayabusa2 is Japan’s second asteroid sample return mission, and its most ambitious robotic exploration flight to date.

CBS News reported that the climb to space appeared to go smoothly, including an upper stage rocket firing that completed the initial launch phase. The solar-powered Hayabusa2 spacecraft was expected to be released from the upper stage after a second rocket firing an hour and a half after launch. The second burn was designed to put the craft on a trajectory that will bring it back to Earth in December 2015 for a velocity-boosting flyby, setting up a rendezvous with asteroid 1999 JU3 in the summer of 2018.