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The Japanese Hayabusa 2 probe has begun its long mission to space to bring back a sample of a distant asteroid after a successful launch late Tuesday night (early Wednesday afternoon local time) from Tanegashima Space Center. Its target is an asteroid called 1999 JU3, where it will land and deploy several mobile instruments to break a few pieces off the surface to take home. It's similar to the first Hayabusa mission, which made its rendezvous with the Itokawa asteroid in 2005, 180 million miles from Earth. However, that probe was unable to successfully deploy its lander, though it did bring back to Earth a few specks of material. Hayabusa 2 carries improved landing gadgetry, a more sophisticated lander capsule and several small mobile rover-like devices — as well as an explosive charge designed to make a crater and expose lower layers of the asteroid's surface. An archived live stream of the launch is available on YouTube:

The mission is very ambitious, but it'll take some time: Hayabusa 2 won't even enter the asteroid's orbit until 2018, at which point it will float and observe for a full year and a half. After carrying out its mission, it'll start the 4-year return journey in 2020.



—Devin Coldewey