Hayabusa 2: Amazing Photos from an Asteroid
The incredible Japanese mission to land and return rocks from an asteroid.
If you like your space missions daring, complex, and slightly bonkers, then Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission to an asteroid is the one for you.
Here at the National Space Centre, we’ve been agog at the amazing images that Hayabusa 2 and its mini landers have been sending back – here are some of our favourites!
Following in the footsteps of audacious missions like Europe’s comet-landing Rosetta spacecraft, Hayabusa 2 has big ambitions for its rendezvous with the Ryugu asteroid.
In June 2018, the spacecraft finally caught up with the speeding space rock, 3.5 years after launch from Japan. Hayabusa 2 will spend 1.5 years with the Ryugu asteroid, and will land not one, not two, but four mini spacecraft on its surface, blast a crater into the rock to expose pristine subsurface rock, and collect samples of rock from both the surface and the crater for return back to labs here on Earth by 2020.
It’s a breathtakingly complex mission that explores an asteroid like never before, and may even help answer the question of how life on Earth began.
Diamond Asteroid Ryugu
After four years of space travel, Hayabusa 2 finally arrived at the Ryugu asteroid on 27 June 2018. As it approached this 1 kilometre wide space rock, the shape became clear – Ryugu was distinctly diamond shaped! Or given the Japanese mission, some even compared it to a dango dumpling.
Ryugu asteroid orbits the Sun between the orbits of Earth and Mars, about 290 million kilometres from Earth. It spins slowly for its shape and size – about once every 7.5 hours.
Ryugu is especially interesting to visit because it is known to be a primitive and pristine type of asteroid, made up of the minerals, ice, and organic compounds that existed in the early Solar System. By visiting Ryugu and returning samples of its soil to Earth, scientists hope to learn if asteroids like Ryugu were the way that life was first introduced to Earth.
After a few months at the asteroid Ryugu, Hayabusa 2 flew to just 60 metres above the surface, in preparation for releasing the first two mini landers.
As the mothership spacecraft got close, its camera saw its shadow!
The image on the top left shows the shadow selfie of the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft and the image below left shows the zoomed-in section of the yellow square, showing an incredibly detailed view of Ryugu’s boulder-strewn surface.
Both images were captured by cameras on Hayabusa 2 while the landers descended to the surface on 21 September 2018.
On 21 September 2018, Hayabusa 2 deployed two mini spacecraft called Rover-1A and Rover-1B to the surface of Ryugu. These two cylindrical rovers are no bigger than a large iphone and weigh only 1 kilogram.
The rovers descended 60 metres to the surface of Ryugu, becoming the first mission to land rovers on the surface of an asteroid. In comparison, NASA’s Near Shoemaker mission circled and soft landed on the Eros asteroid in 2001 and the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission landed on a comet in 2014.
The landing was a huge success and the first few images from the surface make us feel like we were right there on Ryugu. The rocky image and movie on the left were captured by Rover-1B on 23 September 2018.
Instead of using wheels to travel the surface, the rovers can hop by motors that give them a kick from the inside. These solar powered rovers will continue to capture images over the next few months as they hop across the asteroid.
On 3 October 2018, a third lander followed suit.
The German-built MASCOT lander successfully touched down on Ryugu and is already sending back fresh images. This larger, octagonal lander has a camera, thermometer, and magnetic sensor to explore the asteroid surface. It can also jump, but only once! It’s battery powered with an estimated lifetime of 16 hours.
Following the successful landing of Rovers-1a and 1b, and MASCOT, the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will detonate a crater in the surface of Ryugu to expose and collect fresh material.
The spacecraft itself will descend to the surface and collect three different samples of rock.
It will depart the asteroid in December 2019, and return its precious samples to Earth in 2020.
About the author: Dr Tamela Maciel is the Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre.