Japanese space probe starts year-long journey home from asteroid

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A Japanese spacecraft has departed from a distant asteroid, starting a year-long journey home after collecting soil samples and data that could provide clues to the origins of the solar system.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) said the Hayabusa2 left its orbit around the asteroid Ryugu, about 180 million miles from Earth.

Hayabusa2 on Wednesday captured and transmitted to Earth one of its final images of Ryugu, or Dragon Palace, named after a sea-bottom castle in a Japanese folk tale, as it slowly began moving away from its temporary home, the agency said.

The probe will continue its “farewell filming” of the asteroid for a few more days.

Hayabusa2 will adjust its position around November 18 after retreating 40 miles from the asteroid and out of its the gravitational pull. It will then receive a signal from Jaxa to ignite a main engine in early December en route to the Earth’s vicinity.

The spacecraft made touchdowns on the asteroid twice, despite difficulties caused by Ryugu’s rocky surface, and collected data and samples during its 18-month mission since arriving in June 2018.

In the first touchdown in February, it collected surface dust samples. In July, it collected underground samples for the first time in space history after landing in a crater it had earlier created by blasting the asteroid surface.

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