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Space Discovery Mission

If all goes to plan, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa 2 will travel billions of kilometers and blast a crater in an asteroid called Ryugu to collect samples.

Ryugu contains water and organic substances, which scientists hope to gather. They anticipate these fragments will contain clues about the origins and evolution of our solar system.

"Very precise control and calculation of the orbit are vital for the mission," says Makoto Yoshikawa, of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, which is responsible for the probe. "We've been preparing for that."

JAXA researchers will use Earth's gravity to alter the spacecraft's current orbit -- around the sun. When the spacecraft approaches Earth, gravity will boost its speed by 5,800 kilometers per hour. The maneuver is called a swing-by.

"The swing-by accelerates the probe's speed without using fuel," says Yoshikawa. "So it helps the engines. The lighter fuel load means probes can carry more observation equipment."

JAXA launched the spacecraft in December of last year. It was built to take over from the first Hayabusa, which collected particles from the Itokawa asteroid and returned to Earth in 2010.

The first Hayabusa captured the imagination of the Japanese people, leading to movies and museum exhibitions.

The second probe won't have a short journey. Scientists expect the probe will land on the asteroid in 2018, and return home in 2020.

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