From The Editors Science

Japan Has Successfully Landed Two Hopping Rovers on Asteroid Ryugu

Japan has created space history by successfully landing not one but two small rovers called 1a and 1b on a 1-kilometer-wide asteroid that goes by the moniker Ryugu, located 175 million miles, or so, from Earth.

Part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) MINERVA-II 1 space program, 1a and 1b were dropped from the Hayabusa2 spacecraft on Friday (Sep 21) at around 12:35 am ET, after which began the hours-long descent to the surface of Ryugu.

However, confirmation of the two rovers landing successfully came today (Sep 22) by way of a JAXA tweet that read:

“We are sorry we have kept you waiting! MINERVA-II1 consists of two rovers, 1a & 1b. Both rovers are confirmed to have landed on the surface of Ryugu. They are in good condition and have transmitted photos & data. We also confirmed they are moving on the surface.”

On Friday, Hayabusa2 got within 180 feet of the asteroid, before jettisoning the hoppers housed inside the MINERVA-II 1 drum onboard the spacecraft.
So close was Hayabusa2 to Ryugu that it cast a shadow on the asteroid’s surface and even managed to photograph it after the separation, which JAXA shared on Twitter the same day.

Having completed the first phase of the mission, the spacecraft went back to its original position, 12.5 miles above the surface of Ryugu.

Hayabusa2’s asteroid sample-return mission began on December 3, 2014, when the 609-kg space probe was launched from the top of an H-IIA rocket, arriving at Ryugu on June 27, this year.

The spacecraft will deploy two more rovers, including a larger hopper called MASCOT as early as next month, and another smaller one like the 1a and 1b in 2019, before starting its year-long return journey in December 2019, with an expected Earth landing in December 2020.

The German Aerospace Center-developed MASCOT will be dropped from a distance of 328 feet and once on the asteroid’s surface, the multiple instruments onboard will come into play, collecting data on the asteroid’s geology, as well as studying its temperature and magnetic field.

In addition to dropping rovers on Ryugu’s surface, Hayabusa2 will also be involved in collecting and compiling the samples gathered by the rovers for scientific analysis back on Earth.

The 1-kilogram wheel-less robots are designed to hop across the surface of the space rock, collecting samples, as well as mapping and imaging the asteroid with the help the multiple cameras and temperature sensors they’ve been equipped with.

Wheeled rovers were not considered for this mission because the low-gravity environment on Ryudu would have caused them to float away.

The hopping technology, on the other hand, should be able to prevent something like that from happening; it was conceptualized to ensure proper completion of mission tasks without the rovers drifting off into the nothingness of space.

JAXA shared another image on Friday – a blurred color photo captured by one of Rover 1a’s onboard cameras as soon as it separated from the mother ship.

The blurring, according to the agency, was due to the spinning motion of the rover as it descended toward Ryugu.

Another photo captured by Rover-1b, again immediately after separation, shows Ryugu’s surface with the blue-ish haze on the top left of the picture resulting from reflecting sunlight.

The blurring is less on the 1b image, as compared to the one captured by 1a, because the rover was spinning slowly, explains JAXA in its message accompanying the tweeted image.

A Sep 22 post-landing image captured by one of Rover-1a’s camera at around 11:44 (Japan time) also shows a blurred image of the asteroid’s surface on the left, while the white area on the right is, again, reflection from sunlight.

This time, however, the blurring is due to the fact that the image was captured while the rover was in the middle of a hop.

The primary purpose of the entire mission is to have a better understanding of space objects like asteroids and their composition, believed to have remained relatively unchanged for nearly five billion years.

The samples and data collected by the probe and its rovers will go a long way in giving scientists an unprecedented insight into the formative phase of our solar system.

Hayabusa2 is, basically, the continuation of the failed Hayabusa mission launched in 2003 with the purpose of collecting samples and data from another asteroid that went by the name Itokawa.

The asteroid, which was discovered in 1998, is located as close as 180 miles, or so, from Earth.

Sadly, the spacecraft’s attempt to deploy a probe called MINERVA on Itokawa ended in disaster and MINERVA was lost in space.

Premature deployment was the cause attributed to MINERVA’s failure to make it to Itokawa’s surface.

Instead of separating at around 60 meters above the asteroid’s surface, MINERVA disengaged from Hayabusa at 200 meters, which was way too far for the low gravitational pull of the asteroid to pull the lander towards its surface.

Hayabusa, which means falcon in Japanese, returned back to Earth in June 2010 and while it failed to deploy MINERVA, it did manage to bring back some consolation samples in the form of “tiny grains of asteroidal material” that it collected after landing on the asteroid in November 2005.

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