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Hayabusa2 probe to approach Earth on Dec. 6 to drop asteroid samples

This supplied computer graphic image shows the Hayabusa2 space probe and the Ryugu asteroid. (Image courtesy of JAXA/Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The space probe Hayabusa2 will return to the vicinity of Earth on Dec. 6 to drop a capsule containing samples collected from an asteroid that could help explain the origin of life, the Japanese government said Tuesday.

    The capsule to be released from the Hayabusa2, which was launched on a rocket in December 2014, is expected to land in southern Australia, science minister Koichi Hagiuda told a press conference.

    The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said earlier that in order to avoid the Earth's gravitational pull and a disruption of its trajectory, the probe is set to release the capsule at a height of around 400,000 kilometers, equivalent to the distance between Earth and the Moon.

    Hayabusa2 was launched to discover clues about the formation of the solar system and the origin of life, with the Ryugu asteroid's subsurface rock, unaffected by solar flares, believed to have retained the same state since the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago.

    The asteroid is named after an undersea dragon palace in a Japanese fairy tale, in which the mythical fisherman Urashima Taro finds a treasure chest. Hayabusa, meanwhile, means peregrine falcon in Japanese.

    The probe reached Ryugu in June 2018 before touching down on it twice. It apparently succeeded in collecting the first-ever asteroid subsurface samples after creating an artificial crater by shooting a copper projectile at the asteroid, according to JAXA.

    Hayabusa2 departed from Ryugu in November and will continue on another mission after releasing the capsule.

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