Japan is about to land rovers on an asteroid

The rocky surface of asteroid Ryugu.
The rocky surface of asteroid Ryugu.
Image: JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST
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Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2 is just hours from dropping two rovers on Ryugu, an asteroid currently around 320 million kilometers from Earth. Hayabusa2 was launched in December 2014 and has been hovering a few kilometers above Ryugu’s surface since it reached the asteroid in late June, beaming photos back to Earth.

Ryugu, named for a dragon god’s undersea palace in a Japanese folktale, is only about a kilometer across, and has a little divot on its top, which gives it an uncanny resemblance to the Death Star.

Hayabusa2 will drop its two rovers, named MINERVA-IIA and B, from about 60 meters above Ryugu’s surface. From there, the MINERVA rovers will explore Ryugu’s surface and take temperature measurements. Because gravity on the asteroid is weak, the rovers move by bouncing; each hop will launch a rover in the air for 15 minutes before it lands again, and allows it to move forward 15 meters.

Hayabusa2 also plans to take samples of the asteroid, which it will pack up and bring back to Earth. That mission is planned for late 2019.

You can follow Hayabusa2’s progress live on its Twitter account.