The probe will make a four-year journey to 1999 JU3, where it will do a series of extraordinary things. First, it will put down a lander and three "hopping" rovers on the surface. Then, it will fire a so-called "space cannon," essentially a metal bullet, down into the asteroid to collect samples from inside the body. Basically, Hayabusa 2 will drop a bomb on this piece of rock and then land inside the subsequent crater (a dramatic premise reflected in this mock film trailer for the project).

It's an incredibly ambitious program, and it's inspiring given the dearth of funding that NASA is currently struggling with. But what makes it really exciting, and what brings us back to ol' 1999 JU3, is what it'll be bringing back.


Unlike the iron dust-covered stone that the original probe crept down upon, 1999 JU3 was chosen because it contains organic material and even water—and it could solve some of the most essential questions about how life came to be on Earth. For example, one mystery deals with how amino acids—the building blocks of organic life—came to be on Earth. New Scientist explains:

One theory as to how amino acids first arrived on Earth is that they hitch-hiked on asteroids or comets that bombarded our infant planet. But to prove this, researchers must first find amino acids on space rocks.


The Daily Galaxy continues:

The dust gathered could tell if amino acids first arrived on Earth by hitch-hiking on asteroids or comets that bombarded our infant planet. Last year NASA confirmed that its Stardust mission had captured amino acids from the tail of the icy comet Wild 2. But asteroid 1999 JU3, which thermal imaging indicates is rich in carbon compounds, is much closer to Earth and may therefore provide new insights into life's origins.


Hayabusa has been a long, expensive, problem-ridden space program. It's the kind of space program that many would say isn't worth the cost. But, as we're seeing on the eve of its second life, it's also the kind of space program that could end up altering our understanding of how life on Earth came to be. If that's not enough of a justification, I don't know what is.