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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — A Japanese space explorer arrived at an asteroid Wednesday after a 3½-year journey and now begins its real work of trying to blow a crater to collect samples to eventually bring back to Earth.

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The unmanned Hayabusa2 spacecraft reached its base of operations about 12 miles from the asteroid and some 170 million miles from Earth, the Japan Space Exploration Agency said.

Over the next year and a half, the spacecraft will attempt three brief touch-and-go landings to collect samples.

If the retrieval and the return journey are successful, the asteroid material could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth.

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The asteroid, named Ryugu after an undersea palace in a Japanese folktale, is about 3,000 feet in diameter.

The first touchdown is planned for September or October.

Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system. As such, they may help explain how Earth evolved, including the formation of oceans and the start of life.

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Hayabusa2 was launched in December 2014 and is due to return to Earth at the end of 2020.