During a speedy flyby past Earth on December 3rd, the Japanese asteroid-sampling probe, Hayabusa2, captured this haunting photo of the Earth and the Moon together. The probe made its closest approach to Earth at 7:08 p.m. (Japan Standard Time) when it was just 3,090 kilometers shy of the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, JAXA officials said.
Hayabusa2 has been in space for one year, having launched from Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan on December 3rd, 2014. The mission follows up on the previous success of the Hayabusa1 probe, which was the first spacecraft to ever land on the surface of an asteroid. Hayabusa1’s roundtrip flight to asteroid Itokawa took place from 2003 to 2010.
“Many scientific milestones have been achieved from asteroid observations and samples from the asteroid Itokawa,” said Tetsuo Tanaka, associate director general of JAXA’s Lunar and Planetary Exploration Program Group. “Going to a far-off asteroid and returning with samples from it for the first time, these are tremendous technological challenges and our success in meeting them has brought worldwide admiration.”
Hayabusa2 plans to reach asteroid 162173 Ryugu in July 2018, where it will spend about 18 months. It will survey the asteroid for a year and a half, and collect samples from the surface. The research objectives of Hayabusa-2 are to investigate the origin and evolution of the solar system, and to clarify the role of asteroids in possibly seeding early Earth with water and organic molecules, the building blocks of life. Depending on the mission’s success, the probe will then return to Earth by December 2020. JAXA officials expect the return capsule to land somewhere in the Australian outback.
“After its closest flight to the Earth, we have confirmed the good health of the ‘Hayabusa2,” JAXA officials wrote in a statement Thursday. “It will take about a week to confirm if the explorer entered the target orbit.”