DEEP SPACE CHARM

Check out the view from an asteroid 280 million km from Earth

Target in sight.
Target in sight.
Image: JAXA
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A Japanese space exploration mission landed two small rovers on an asteroid on Sept. 21. Now those rovers have sent back their first snapshots.

Ryugu is a diamond-shaped rock a little under a kilometer across, zipping through space 280 million km away from Earth. In 2014, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency sent a space probe called Hyabusa2 to visit the asteroid and drop the two MINERVA-II rovers.

Here’s a shot as the rovers dropped 60 meters to the surface of Ryugu:

Image captured by Rover-1A on September 21 at around 13:08 JST. This is a color image taken immediately after separation from the spacecraft. Hayabusa2 is at the top and the surface of Ryugu is bottom. The image is blurred because the shot was taken while the rover was rotating.
An image taken by the rover immediately after separation from the spacecraft, which you can see in the top of the photo.
Image: JAXA

“From the surface of Ryugu, MINERVA-II1 sent a radio signal to the Earth via Hayabusa2 [spacecraft],” mission spokesperson Takashi Kubota said. “The image taken by MINERVA-II1 during a hop allowed me to relax as a dream of many years came true. I felt awed by what we had achieved in Japan. This is just a real charm of deep space exploration.”

Image captured by Rover-1B on September 21 at around 13:07 JST. This color image was taken immediately after separation from the spacecraft. The surface of Ryugu is in the lower right. The coloured blur in the top left is due to the reflection of sunlight when the image was taken.
Another photo taken as the rover dropped to the surface of Ryugu.
Image: JAXA

The lightweight rovers are designed to hop around in the asteroid’s weak gravity. Each fifteen-meter hop requires fifteen minutes of hang-time. Here’s an image taken mid-hop:

Image captured by Rover-1B on September 21 at around 13:07 JST. This color image was taken immediately after separation from the spacecraft. The surface of Ryugu is in the lower right. The coloured blur in the top left is due to the reflection of sunlight when the image was taken.
A mid-hop shot includes glare from the sun.
Image: JAXA

This is the second mission Japan has made to an asteroid, after the original Hayabusa probe visited an astronomical body called Itokawa in 2005. The current mission is the first to ever visit a “C-type” asteroid, that is, one that scientists believe includes significant amounts of carbon and water as well as metals. Scientists hope studying these asteroids will shed light on the early history of Earth as a planet, when water and carbon first interacted.

The current mission will continue with a first-of-its kind experiment: The probe will release an impactor, essentially a heavy weight, that will create an artificial crater on Ryugu. Then it will land in the crater to take samples from below the asteroid’s surface, which it will return to Earth for scientists to study.