Call it a special delivery: after six years of flying in , Japan’s “abbird 2” will return home, but only throw away its rare asteroid samples before starting a new mission.

The refrigerator-sized probe was in December 2014. It landed and collected material from an asteroid about 300 million kilometers (185 million miles) from Earth, which has already excited scientists.

But its work is not over yet. Scientists from the Japan Space Agency JAXA now plan to extend its mission for more than ten years and target two new .

Before starting this mission, Hayabusa2 needs to extract its precious samples from the asteroid Ryugu (Japanese “Dragon Palace”).

Scientists hope that the capsule contains about 0.1 grams of material, which will provide clues to the birth of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago.

These samples may reveal “the way matter is distributed in the solar system, why it exists on asteroids, and its relationship with the Earth,” project manager Tsuda Yuichi told reporters before getting off the car on Sunday.

The substance was placed in a capsule that would be separated from Hayabusa2 while it was about 220,000 kilometers from the earth before falling into the desert of southern Australia.

They were collected in two key stages of last year’s mission.

First, Hayabusa2 landed on Ryugu to collect , and then launched a “impacter” to stir the original material from below the surface. A few months later, it began to collect other samples.

Mission leader Makoto Yoshikawa told reporters: “We may be able to obtain materials that can provide us with clues to the birth of planets and the origin of . I am very interested in seeing these materials.”

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Inside the capsule, the samples will be collected, processed, and shipped to Japan without being affected by sunlight and radiation.

Half of the data will be shared by JAXA, NASA, and other international organizations, and the rest will be reserved for future research due to advancements in analysis techniques.

Two new asteroid targets
After sending the samples, Hayabusa2 will complete a series of orbits around the sun, which lasts about six years, record data on dust in interplanetary space and observe exoplanets.

Then, it will approach its first target asteroid in July 2026.

The probe will not approach the asteroid named 2001 CC21, but scientists hope it will be able to take pictures of it when it completes its “high-speed swing.”

Being too close can also help develop knowledge about how to protect the Earth from asteroid impacts.

Hayabusa 2 will then head towards its main target, 1998 KY26, which is a spherical asteroid with a diameter of only 30 meters. When the probe reaches the asteroid in July 2031, it will be about 300 million kilometers from Earth.

This goal presents a major new challenge, not only because it spins rapidly, it rotates around its axis approximately every 10 minutes.

Abbird-2 will observe and photograph the asteroid, but it is unlikely to land and collect samples because it may not have enough fuel to send them back to Earth.

Seiichiro Watanabe, a scientist on the Hayabusa2 probe project and a professor of planetary science at Nagoya University, said that still, it would be a feat just to ship it to an asteroid.

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He told reporters: “It’s like an athlete. In the 10 years after switching to figure skating, he tried twice in the Rugby World Cup to participate in the Olympic Games, and he got two attempts.”

“We never expected Hayabusa2 to perform another mission… but it is a scientifically meaningful and fascinating plan.”

Mission expansion will bring risks, including Hayabusa2 equipment will be degraded in deep space, but it also provides a rare, relatively cost-effective way to continue research.

The probe is the successor of JAXA’s first asteroid probe “Hayabusa”, Hayabusa means falcon in Japanese.

After seven years of adventure, the probe brought back dust samples from a smaller potato-shaped asteroid in 2010 and was hailed as a scientific victory.

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