Photo/IllutrationAn artist's rendition of the Hayabusa 2 probe landing on the Ryugu asteroid (Provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is expected to land on the “spinning top” asteroid Ryugu in February in a mission that could provide clues on how the solar system was formed.

The first landing was initially planned for October, but the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) delayed the attempt because of the asteroid’s rockier-than-expected surface.

“The time has finally come,” JAXA senior project member Takashi Kubota said at a news conference on Jan. 8. “Two candidate landing spots have their own advantages and drawbacks, but we will robustly try to collect samples.”

The two sites are near the equator of the asteroid. JAXA said it will pick one by early February.

Between Feb. 18 and Feb. 23, the Hayabusa 2 will start descending from its “home position” at an altitude of 20 kilometers from the asteroid. JAXA will use “target markers,” which will be dropped on Ryugu beforehand, to guide the probe.

Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to make three touch-and-go landings.

On the first landing, which will last for a few seconds, a 1-meter-long cylindrical device called Samper Horn will extend from the probe and fire a bullet into the asteroid. The Hayabusa 2 will collect the sand and rock fragments emitted before returning to the home position, according to JAXA.

Ryugu is believed to have been created 4.6 billion years ago, when the solar system was formed.

The samples could help explain the origins of the solar system and even life on Earth, particularly if they contain organic substances or water.

”We will carry out the mission carefully yet daringly,” Kubota said.

JAXA also said the International Astronomical Union has recognized 13 names of locations on the asteroid that JAXA had submitted for approval.

The names include characters in Japanese traditional folk tales, such as “Urashima” and “Otohime,” a fisherman and princess, respectively, in “Urashima Taro,” and “Momotaro,” the hero in “Momotaro” (Peach Boy).