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Editorial: Japan should use Hayabusa2 success to boost space exploration activities

The successful landing of the space probe Hayabusa2 on the asteroid Ryugu on Feb. 22 has highlighted Japan's high level of space exploration technology.

The probe is believed to have collected samples from the surface of the celestial object some 340 million kilometers away from Earth, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Hayabusa2 will also shoot metal objects into the surface of the asteroid at a high speed to create a crater. This will expose samples beneath the ground that have not deteriorated. The probe is expected to return to Earth with these samples and it is hoped that more achievements will be made during the mission.

Ryugu is an asteroid measuring approximately 900 meters in diameter. The path of its orbit lies between Earth and Mars. If samples are closely analyzed, they can verify the hypothesis that water and organic substances on Earth came from asteroids and help clarify how the solar system was formed as well as the origin of life.

The surface of Ryugu is covered with countless rocks. JAXA controllers carefully maneuvered Hayabusa2 to avoid rocks so that its body would not be damaged, and guided the spacecraft to land on a flat area with a radius of three meters. According to the plan, the spacecraft was to shoot a projectile at the surface upon landing and collect samples of rocks to be stirred up. JAXA confirmed a signal sent to shoot the projectile.

Since Hayabusa2 cannot swiftly respond to instructions from Earth, the spacecraft automatically landed on the asteroid using its cameras and altimeter. Such navigation technology will certainly be useful for future space exploration projects.

The spacecraft's predecessor, Hayabusa that landed on the asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and returned to Earth in 2010, was plagued by a series of problems, including those with its attitude control system and engines. It was able to collect only a small amount of samples from the asteroid because it failed to shoot a projectile at the surface of the celestial object.

In contrast, Hayabusa2 has so far not suffered any major problems. Unexpected glitches often pose a challenge to space exploration projects. JAXA has obviously put lessons learned from the Hayabusa mission to good use and exercised wisdom, leading to the stable flight of Hayabusa2.

This will be the first mission in the world to try to collect samples from inside an asteroid. Substances below the surface are less decayed than those on it, and substances whose conditions are similar to those when the solar system was formed are believed to be preserved. It is hoped that the attempt will prove successful.

International cooperation is progressing in space exploration just as the United States and Europe are considering participating in JAXA's plan to bring back samples from a moon orbiting Mars. This is because such cooperation allows countries to try and make achievements that a single country would find difficult to do on its own, while reducing the expenses each country needs to shoulder.

However, countries will not participate in a project undertaken by a nation whose technology is not globally recognized. Japan should take advantage of its success with the Hayabusa2 project to increase its presence in space exploration.

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