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JAXA asteroid sample return offers insight for Hera mission

on 15 December 2020

The team behind ESA’s Hera asteroid mission for planetary defence, in which Romania is a key participant, congratulates JAXA for returning Hayabusa2’s capsule to Earth laden with pristine asteroid samples. They look forward to applying insights from this audacious space adventure to their own mission.

After 3.2 billion km of travel through space, Hayabusa2’s reentry capsule parachuted down to Australia’s remote desert Woomera Prohibited Area on Saturday 5 December.

Within the capsule is material gathered from the Ryugu near-Earth asteroid during two sampling operations: an initial touchdown sampling in February 2019 was followed by a second one in July that year that collected subsurface samples after blasting the face of the asteroid with an explosive impactor.

Patrick Michel, CNRS Director of Research of France’s Côte d'Azur Observatory, serves as co-investigator and interdisciplinary scientist on the Japanese mission and as Principal Investigator on ESA’s Hera. He comments: “Hayabusa2’s samples should give us an extraordinary opportunity to measure with high accuracy the composition and other material properties of its carbonaceous asteroid target.

The 900-m diameter Ryugu has a spinning top shape; its density is very low and based on the results of the Small Carry-on Impactor (SCI) impact experiment performed in April 2019, its surface appears cohesionless. These findings are extremely relevant to planetary defense, which is the prime goal of the Hera mission.”

Hera will not return any samples to Earth, but will be following Hayabusa2’s approach in one notable respect.

When it arrives at its target Didymos asteroid system in late 2026 ESA’s desk-sized spacecraft will similarly examine subsurface material, this time excavated by a far more powerful explosive impact: NASA’s DART spacecraft will in the meantime have collided with the smaller of the two Didymos asteroids in 2022, which will attempt to shift the orbit of the asteroid in a measurable way.

Romania will play an essential role in the HERA mission, the European Space Agency’s first mission for planetary defence, part of an international asteroid deflection effort, carried out in collaboration with NASA. Today, ESA awarded a multi-million euro contract covering the detailed design, manufacturing and testing of Hera, set to perform sustained exploration of a double asteroid system.

Romania is one of the key partners in the commercial consortium. Our country is responsible, together with Portugal, for the development of the laser altimeter which will provide crucial information for the autonomous navigation functions. In addition, Romania is developing the image processing unit, harness and the electrical test equipment (while also contributing to its GNC development).

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Image credit: Hayabusa2 Collection Team M