A Japanese H-2A rocket on Dec. 3 launched the nation’s Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample-return mission from the Tanegashima Space Center, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which supplied the rocket, reported.

Liftoff from the southern Japan facility was at 1:22 p.m. local time, JAXA and Mitsubishi said in a joint press release. “The launch vehicle flew as planned, and at approximately one hour, 47 minutes and 21 seconds after liftoff, the separation of the Hayabusa 2 to earth-escape trajectory was confirmed,” they said.

Hayabusa 2 is the follow-on to the successful Hayabusa 1 mission, which launched in 2003 to the asteroid Itokawa. That probe overcame numerous technical difficulties to become the first to return sample material from an asteroid, accomplishing that feat in 2010.

Hayabusa 2 is expected to rendezvous with a more primitive asteroid, 1999 JU3, in mid-2018, and collect a sample during a one-and-a-half year stay for return to Earth in 2020. The probe is similar in configuration to its predecessor but features updated technologies, including the sample-collection mechanism.

The launch was the 26th overall for the H-2A rocket and the vehicle’s 20th straight success.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...