June 27 (UPI) — Japan’s spacecraft Hayabusa-2 has reached its target destination, the asteroid Ryugu. After a 3.5-year journey, the probe is now within 20 kilometers, or 12.5 miles, of the distant space rock.
According to JAXA, Japan’s space agency, the craft’s thrusters have been able to maintain a constant distance to the asteroid. The probe is currently fine-tuning and stabilizing its orbit around Ryugu.
“Finally we have arrived at Ryugu,” JAXA’s Twitter account for the Hayabusa-2 mission wrote in a tweet on Wednesday morning.
Over the next 18 months, Hayabusa-2 will perform three touch-and-go landings. The probe will land on the small asteroid for just a few seconds per landing — long enough to collect samples from the space rock’s dusty surface.
The Hayabusa-2 is on a mission to study the asteroid and deliver rocks and soil from Ryugu, according to the BBC.
“At first, we will study very carefully the surface features. Then we will select where to touch down. Touchdown means we get the surface material,” said Makoto Yoshikawa, mission manager of Hayabusa 2.
Explosives will be used for the project so fresh samples can be drawn out from beneath the surface.
The Hayabusa 2 will leave the asteroid premises after a copper projectile or “impactor” floats down into the asteroid.
The explosion will then drive the projectile into the surface.
The space explorer is scheduled to return to Earth at the end of 2020, if all goes to plan
Earlier this week, JAXA released a grainy image of the asteroid target, confirming the probe’s approach.
“From a distance, Ryugu initially appeared round, then gradually turned into a square before becoming a beautiful shape similar to fluorite, known as the ‘firefly stone’ in Japanese,” mission manager Yuichi Tsuda said in a statement.
Ryugu has a diameter of roughly 3,200 feet, four times smaller than 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the asteroid visited by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe.
According to NHK and Kyodo, Hayabusa means “hawk” and Ryugu means “dragon.”
Astronomers consider Ryugu a potentially hazardous asteroid, as its orbit around the sun brings it rather closer to Earth. A collision with an asteroid Ryugu’s size could do considerable damage. Current calculations suggest it could pass within 59,000 miles of Earth.
“Studying Ryugu could tell humanity not only about Ryugu’s surface and interior, but about what materials were available in the early Solar System for the development of life,” according to NASA.
The asteroid has also been identified as a future target for space mining operations. Scientists believe the rock contains a variety of elements, including nickel, iron, cobalt, water, nitrogen, hydrogen and ammonia.
During the coming weeks, Hayabusa-2 will image the asteroids surface looking for ideal locations to execute its touch-and-go landings.
“From this point, we are planning to conduct exploratory activities in the vicinity of the asteroid, including scientific observation of asteroid Ryugu and surveying the asteroid for sample collection,” JAXA announced.