ESA has announced its intent to aid the Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA) with its ambitious Hayabusa-2 mission to retrieve material samples from an asteroid, and return said samples to Earth by the year 2020. Following a successful launch last December atop a H-IIA rocket, the probe will now benefit from 400 hours of tracking and telemetry from ESA's 35 m (115 ft) diameter dish at Malargüe, Argentina.
Traveling under the power of its ion engine, Hayabusa-2 is expected to make contact with its target, a carbon-rich asteroid known as 1999 JU3, in June 2018. Upon arrival, the probe will set about the work of attempting to shed light on the origins and evolution of our solar system.
Exploration is scheduled to last for 18 months, during which time Hayabusa-2 will deploy three small rovers and a lander containing a suite of four observation instruments. The probe will also attempt to penetrate the surface of 1999 JU3 by smashing a copper "bomb" into the surface of the asteroid in order to create a crater. Finally, a number of samples will be collected from the surface of the asteroid by the spacecraft's Sampler Mechanism. Upon return to Earth, these samples will be transported safely through the atmosphere via the probe's re-entry capsule.
The 35-m dish at Malargüe, Argentina will be used to maximize scientific output for the JAXA mission (Photo: ESA)
With the use of ESA's tracking station, Hayabusa-2 will be reachable for extended periods of time, when ordinarily the probe would have passed out of range of the Japanese tracking stations. This maximizes the scientific rewards returnable by the mission, as orders from JAXA can be uploaded more frequently. That in turn allows more tasks can be undertaken by Hayabusa-2, and permits the probe to return more science data than would otherwise have been possible.
The Germany-based European Space Operations Centre, which administers to the Malargüe dish, is planning on conducting an inflight compatibility test with the Hayabusa-2 on the 22nd of April. This will be done in order to ensure that the spacecraft is ready to receive ESA-based communications during critical mission periods.
If all goes to plan, Hayabusa-2 will greatly expand our knowledge of these alien celestial bodies, and with any luck, will succeed in ensnaring the attention and admiration of the public, just as Rosetta and Philae succeeded in doing over the course of the now-famous comet chasing mission.