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Two daring spacecraft aim to bring asteroid dust back to Earth

The pristine space material may help explain life's beginnings

TREASURE HUNTERS Two spacecraft, Hayabusa2 (left) and OSIRIS-REx (right), began exploring two ancient asteroids in 2018. Both craft are expected to pick up samples of their respective rocks and carry them to Earth.

Shogo Tachibana greeted asteroid Ryugu with dread. The cosmochemist with the University of Tokyo had spent 10 years helping to design a mission to Ryugu's surface. To touch down safely, the spacecraft, Hayabusa2, needs to find broad, flat stretches of fine-grained dust on the asteroid. But on June 27, when Hayabusa2 finally reached its target after a three-and-a-half-year journey , Tachibana got a rude awakening: Ryugu is covered in boulders. Big ones.

"We cannot find a 100 percent safe place to touch down," Tachibana says. "It seems to be a very dangerous place." If Hayabusa2 can deal with the boulders - and any other challenges that arise - it will become only the second spacecraft to bring a piece of an asteroid back to Earth. And the mission will answer questions that its predecessor couldn't. The original Hayabusa mission visited a sand- and rock-covered asteroid called Itokawa in 2005. But Itokawa has the wrong chemical makeup to address big questions about the origin of life that Ryugu, which is carbon-rich, is well suited for. And Hayabusa suffered a series of calamities that caused it to return to Earth several years late, with less than 2,000 grains of precious asteroid dust. Tachibana and colleagues from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, are counting on Haybusa2 to return bits of Ryugu's surface to Earth in 2020. And if a daring plan to blow a crater into the asteroid works, the spacecraft will get some subsurface grains as well.

A sister project from NASA, the OSIRIS-REx mission, arrived at an asteroid called Bennu in December to bring samples back in 2023 The two spacecraft face daunting challenges. The probes must investigate objects that have so little gravity that sunlight can knock them off their orbits. If the probes manage to pick up samples, the spacecraft must keep the dust pristine during the trip back to Earth. To get the most out of the missions, the Japanese and American teams are trying to work together across cultural and bureaucratic divides.

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