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Science

Probe nears asteroid to unlock secrets to life's origins

Hayabusa2 mission includes return of samples after 18-month study

This artist's rendering depicts Japan's Hayabusa2 probe reaching the asteroid Ryugu, thought to contain organic matter from the dawn of the solar system. (Image courtesy of JAXA)

TOKYO -- A Japanese space probe is just weeks away from reaching an asteroid thought to contain primordial matter from the formation of the solar system, cruising toward the start of an 18-month observational orbit that may offer insight into the origins of life.

The Hayabusa2 vessel has come within roughly 260,000km of the asteroid, named Ryugu, with arrival expected between June 21 and July 5, Yuichi Tsuda, the mission's project manager at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said Thursday. The probe has enjoyed a smooth journey since its launch in 2014.

Ryugu orbits the sun between Mars and the Earth. The asteroid is thought to house organic or hydrated matter dating to the birth of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Hayabusa2 will harvest samples of the asteroid during its mission through the end of 2019 before bringing them back to Earth in late 2020.

One theory holds that life on Earth arose from matter that arrived from a collision with an asteroid. Material from Ryugu could provide a window to study that event.

The mission follows that of Hayabusa, which returned to Earth in 2010 after a difficult journey to and from a rockier asteroid called Itokawa. That effort was the world's first to gather samples of an asteroid.

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