TOKYO • Japan's Hayabusa2 probe landed successfully yesterday on a distant asteroid for a final touchdown, with the aim of collecting samples that could shed light on the evolution of the solar system.
"The touchdown is successful," spokesman Takayuki Tomobe from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) said.
The touchdown was greeted with cheering and applause in the Jaxa mission control room, with officials grinning and shaking hands.
Jaxa officials had earlier said the probe appeared to have landed successfully, but confirmation came only after Hayabusa2 lifted back up from the asteroid and resumed communications with the control room.
"All of us are relieved to see that the probe has resumed sending data from its antenna, which can send a large amount of data to us," Mr Tomobe said.
Yesterday's brief landing is the second time that Hayabusa2 has touched down on the desolate asteroid Ryugu, some 300 million kilometres from Earth.
The complex multi-year mission also involved sending rovers and robots down to the surface.
The touchdown was intended to collect pristine materials from beneath the surface of the asteroid, which could provide insights into what the solar system was like at its birth some 4.6 billion years ago.
To reach those crucial materials, an "impactor" was fired in April from Hayabusa2 towards Ryugu, in a risky process that created a crater on the asteroid's surface and stirred up material that had not previously been exposed to the atmosphere.
Hayabusa2's first touchdown was in February, when it landed briefly on Ryugu and fired a bullet into the surface to puff up dust for collection, before blasting back to its holding position.
The second touchdown required special preparations, because any problems could mean the probe would lose the precious materials gathered during its first landing.
Price tag for the Hayabusa2 mission, which was launched in December 2014.
A photo of the crater taken by Hayabusa2's camera after the April blast showed parts of the asteroid's surface covered with materials that are "obviously different" from the rest of the surface, mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa said before yesterday's touchdown.
The latest touchdown is the last major part of Hayabusa2's mission. When the probe returns to Earth next year, scientists hope to learn more about the history of the solar system and even the origin of life from its samples.
The Hayabusa2 mission has attracted international attention, with Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May sending a video to the team ahead of the landing.
"The world is watching. We love you. Take care Hayabusa2," the musician told the team.
At about the size of a large refrigerator, and equipped with solar panels to keep it powered, Hayabusa2 is the successor to Jaxa's first asteroid explorer, Hayabusa, which means "falcon" in Japanese.
The Hayabusa2 mission was launched in December 2014, and has a price tag of around 30 billion yen (S$376 million).
It has made history with the landings and the creation of the crater on Ryugu's surface.
In 2005, Nasa's Deep Impact project succeeded in creating an artificial crater on a comet, but only for observation purposes.