Japan probe Hayabusa2 touches down on distant asteroid

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In what may sound like a scene from a sci-fi film, a Japanese probe is about to land on an asteroid 340 million kilometers from Earth, take aim and fire.

During its brief contact with the asteroid, the spacecraft should have attempted to collect rock samples kicked up by the bullet, the Planetary Society explained.

According to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the probe began its descent to the asteroid from an altitude of 20,000 meters above at about 0400 GMT, with the descent being delayed for a few hours while the final approach to the asteroid's surface was rechecked.

The asteroid is about 900 metres (3,000 feet) in diameter.

It is scheduled to make three touch-and-go landings.

Communication with Hayabusa2 is cut off at times because its antennas are not always pointed towards Earth and it could take several more days to confirm the bullet was actually fired to allow the collection of samples.

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If the probe successfully collects the samples, it would be the second such exploit following one by its predecessor Hayabusa in 2005.

The spacecraft's landing on the asteroid Ryugu, just 900 meters (3,000 feet) in diameter, came after an initial attempt in October was delayed because it was hard to pick a landing spot on the asteroid's rocky surface.

Originally, Hayabusa2 was scheduled to touch down last October.

The brief landing will be challenging, because of the uneven and boulder-covered surface.

"A target marker" dropped on the asteroid beforehand will guide the probe.

The Ryugu asteroid is thought to contain clues about the origins of life.

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