The life of an asteroid is lonely. The rocks spend eons drifting through the cold vacuum of space.
On Wednesday, the asteroid Ryugu welcomed a special visitor: Japan's Hayabusa 2 probe successfully landed at 21:06 CET (01:06 UTC on Thursday) on the surface of the asteroid).
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched Hayabusa-2 into space in December 2014. Their mission: to explore and extract samples from Ryugu, a half-mile-diameter primitive asteroid orbiting the sun at a distance of up to 1 km, 131 million miles (211 million kilometers).
The probe reached its destination in June 2018, then went to work, taking observations, measuring the gravity of the asteroid and rehearsing the touchdown.
She blasted the asteroid with a copper plate and a box of explosives in April to loosen stones and expose material beneath the surface, and then successfully landed on Ryugu last night to pick up the remains of rocks and soil.
The spaceship picked up the images below as it left the surface of the asteroid.
"The first photo was taken at 1
Ancient rock samples
Asteroids are made of rock and metal and have a size of pebbles up to 600 miles megaliths. Most of them hang in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, although Ryugu's orbit sometimes runs between Mars and Earth.
Some asteroids date from the time of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, when material remnants of the formation were left over from planets fused into these boulders. In this sense, asteroids can serve as time capsules: what scientists find in these primitive rocks could tell us much about the history of the solar system.
Ryugu is a C-type asteroid, which means that it is rich in organic carbon molecules, water and possibly amino acids. Amino acids are building blocks for proteins and were essential for the development of life on Earth. Some theories assume that an asteroid first brought amino acids here to give our planet the seeds of life.
About three quarters of the asteroids in our solar system are C-type. Hayabusa-2 is said to be the first mission to return samples of such an asteroid to Earth.
The probe originally landed on Ryugu in February, collecting shallow samples just below the surface, but the mission managers decided to collect some deeper rock, including samples, as this material was not exposed to harsh weather conditions from space.
To achieve this, the probe had to lift off the asteroid and then blast a 10 meter crater into the surface to gain access to the rock below.
In April, Hayabusa-2 released a box of explosives in space that shot a copper plate in the asteroid.
The landing on Wednesday then caused a stir in all the released material.  Screenshot 2019 07 12 at 9:43:35 ” width=”700″ style=”width: 100%;”/> ( JAXA / Twitter )
"These images were taken before and after placement with the small monitor camera ( CAM-H) .The first one is 4 seconds before touchdown, the second is i self on touchdown and the third is 4 seconds after touchdown. In the third picture you can see the amount of stones rising. "JAXA tweeted .
After touchdown, Hayabusa-2 collected a new set of samples and left Ryugu's surface at the end of this year, starting the 9-million-kilometer journey home.
So far everything is on schedule.
[PPTD] Thank you for your support from all over the world! Control room makes a happy V sign for the second touchdown! pic.twitter.com/YUz7sVmQPb
NASA is on a similar mission level
NASA is also investigating a distant asteroid.
The agency's OSIRIS REx mission reached a much smaller C-type asteroid in August 2018, Bennu. Instead, the probe did not land on Bennu's surface; it revolved at a record-breaking distance.
OSIRIS-REx is due to approach Bennu's surface in July 2020, but Space Craf will only be in contact for about five seconds. During this brief moment nitrogen gas is blown in to stir up dust and pebbles and collect the samples. If everything goes according to plan, it will bring this material back to earth in 2023.
The surface of the asteroid, however, is rougher than expected, and debris flying from space rock can pose a threat to the orbiting spacecraft. NASA still chooses the location for sampling.
However, Bennu has already made an important discovery: Before entering orbit around Bennu in December, the probe discovered that the asteroid contained constituents for water (oxygen and hydrogen atoms bound together).
Although Bennu is too small to absorb liquid water, it could be that there was once water on its parent asteroid that blew Bennu from 700 million to 2 billion years ago.
NASA's Asteroid Exploration Mission Will Do It The JAXA team hopes that comparing samples from two different locations on the same asteroid will provide new information on how the asteroids are changing in space over a longer period of time.
Both Bennu and Ryugu could also teach scientists much about the history of the solar system and possibly – if they contain organic materials – about the origins of life on Earth.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
More from Business Insider: