Call it a special delivery: after six years in space, Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe is heading home, but only to drop off its rare asteroid samples before starting a new mission.
The fridge-sized probe, launched in December 2014, has already thrilled scientists by landing on and gathering material from an asteroid some 300 million kilometres (185 million miles) from Earth.
But its work isn’t over yet, with scientists from Japan’s space agency JAXA now planning to extend its mission for more than a decade and targeting two new asteroids.
Before that mission can begin, Hayabusa-2 needs to drop off its precious samples from the asteroid Ryugu -- “dragon palace” in Japanese.
“The probe is now in a very good condition,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda said on Friday, hailing its return as a “rare event in human history”.
Scientists are hoping it will bring around 0.1 grams of material that will offer clues about what the solar system was like at its birth some 4.6 billion years ago.
The samples could shed light on “how matter is scattered around the solar system, why it exists on the asteroid and how it is related to Earth,” Tsuda told reporters ahead of Sunday’s drop-off.