Space Agencies Across the Globe Prepare to Explore Comets and Asteroids

Asteroid Explorer Hayabusa2

Asteroid Explorer “Hayabusa2” is a successor of “Hayabusa” (MUSES-C), which revealed several new technologies and returned to Earth in June 2010. Credit: JAXA and Akihiro Ikeshita

With Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s recent launch of the Hayabusa2 mission, NASA and other space agencies across the globe are opening up new possibilities for space exploration with missions to comets, asteroids, and other celestial bodies.

Following NASA, European Space Agency (ESA), and Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) spacecraft observations of the close flyby of Mars by comet Siding Spring in October, and the successful November landing of ESA’s Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched its Hayabusa2 mission on December 3 to rendezvous with an asteroid, land a small probe plus three mini rovers on its surface, and then return samples to Earth.

NASA and JAXA are cooperating on the science of the mission and NASA will receive a portion of the Hayabusa2 sample in exchange for providing Deep Space Network communications and navigation support for the mission.

Hayabusa2 builds on lessons learned from JAXA’s initial Hayabusa mission, which collected samples from a small asteroid named Itokawa and returned them to Earth in June 2010. Hayabusa2’s target is a 750-meter-wide (2,500-foot-wide) asteroid named 1999 JU3, because of the year when it was discovered by the NASA-sponsored Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project, Lexington, Massachusetts. This is a C-type asteroid which is thought to contain more organic material than other asteroids. Scientists hope to better understand how the solar system evolved by studying samples from these asteroids.

“We think of C-type asteroids as being less altered than others,” says Lucy McFadden, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Bringing that material back and being able to look at it in the lab — I think it’s going to be very exciting.”

On November 17, NASA and JAXA signed a Memorandum of Understanding for cooperation on the Hayabusa2 mission and NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security–Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission to mutually maximize their missions’ results. OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to launch in 2016. It will be the first U.S. asteroid sample return mission. OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with the 500-meter-sized (1,600-foot-sized) asteroid Bennu in 2019 for detailed reconnaissance and a return of samples to Earth in 2023.

Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx will further strengthen the two space agencies’ relationship in asteroid exploration.

The missions will also help NASA choose its target for the first-ever mission to capture and redirect an asteroid. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in the 2020s will help NASA test new technologies needed for future human missions for the Journey to Mars.

Comets and asteroids contain material that formed in a disk surrounding our infant sun. The hundreds of thousands of known asteroids are leftovers from material that didn’t coalesce into a planet or moon in the inner solar system. The thousands of known comets likely formed in the outer solar system, far from the sun’s heat, where water exists as ice.

Larger objects, like dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres, also formed in the outer solar system, where water ice is stable. Pluto and Ceres will soon be explored by NASA missions New Horizons and Dawn, respectively. Asteroids and comets are of unique interest to scientists, though, because they could hold clues to the origins of life on Earth.

These missions have greatly increased scientific knowledge on Earth about our solar system and the history of our planet. Many scientists suspect we could find organic material in asteroids and comets, like amino acids—critical building blocks for life, which could help answer questions about the origins of life on Earth. These questions drive us to continue exploring the intriguing asteroids and comets of our solar system.

Multiple missions that are operating in space or in development by NASA and international partners could bring us much closer to answering that question in our lifetimes and also help identify Near-Earth Objects that might pose a risk of Earth impact, and further help inform developing options for planetary defense.

1 Comment on "Space Agencies Across the Globe Prepare to Explore Comets and Asteroids"

  1. Since the discovery of a multitude of exoplanetary systems with spins and orbits going “every which way” – not to mention “hot Jupiters”, “super-Earths” and singleton planets – has placed our own flat disk Solar System in an extremely small minority, and since the conventional “core accretion” theory of planet and planetary system formation is completely unable to account for the existence and behavior of the vast majority, isn’t it more than a little presumptuous to even think that investigation of comets and asteroids is going to give us the correct answers as to how our cosmic environment – evidently itself an “anomaly” in the greater scheme of things – was established?

    Please note that I use the word “established” rather than “evolved” because I do not hold with core accretion, believing that formation of planetary systems by the capture of “free planets”, created as the shrapnel from supernova explosions, provides a far better explanation of the character of our own Earth and of the variegated natures of the planets of our Solar System. It is also completely unfazed by all these exoplanetary systems which core-accretionists term “weird”.

    As a consequence I consider exploration missions such as those described in this article, while being of undoubted scientific interest to a few academics and of commercial interest to a considerably larger number of would-be get-rich-quick prospectors, to be a money- and resource-wasting sideline with no direct bearing on what in my opinion should be the principal aim of space exploration and utilization: establishing human settlements off this planet – whether on the Moon, Mars, other Solar System bodies, or in gravity-synthesizing pinwheel space stations in Earth orbit.

    It is interesting that in the very recent past (over a period of only several weeks) NASA has decided to severely curtail the name of its proposed (and hopefully never to get off the ground) mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to Moon orbit from “ARRM-LASSO” (aka “Lasso an Asteroid”) to just “ARM”. It’s less of a mouthful but it doesn’t change the nature of the beast: a supposedly cheap robotic prelude to a series of horrendously expensive and pointless manned “examination” missions, the cost of which would be far better spent in bringing to fruition all the plans NASA has made over decades (already a huge investment) for creation of one or more permanent bases on the Moon – as a REAL first step toward the further human exploration of space.

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