Two Tiny Hopping Rovers Race Toward Near-Earth Asteroid

Rodiano Bonacci
Settembre 24, 2018

Ryugu, which means "Dragon Palace" in Japanese, is an asteroid that is about 1 kilometer wide and lies 300 million kilometers from Earth.

The solar panelled-powered rovers move by "hopping" because the extremely weak gravity on the asteroid makes rolling hard.

This mission follows up on the first Hayabusa odyssey, which touched down on the asteroid Itokawa in 2005 and returned a smattering of samples in 2010.

Hayabusa2 released the Minerva-II 1 explorers toward a location north of the asteroid's equator shortly past 1 p.m., when it reached a point some 50-60 meters above Ryugu.

After the landing, the two rovers - measuring just 18 centimetres across - will make small hops on the asteroid and capture images of the surface and measure temperatures, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said.

Two small hopping robot began the historic descent on a large asteroid in deep space.

If touchdown goes as planned, they will be the first rovers to successfully land on an asteroid's surface. We don't have confirmation yet, but we are very, very hopeful. "We don't have confirmation yet, but we are very, very hopeful", JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda told reporters. "I am looking forward to seeing pictures".

"Communication with MINERVA-II1 has now stopped", JAXA wrote on Twitter. So they haven't confirmed any images of the landing itself.

Next month, Hayabusa2 will deploy an "impactor" that will explode above the asteroid, shooting a two-kilo copper object into the surface to blast a crater a few metres in diameter.

One of the goals of the mission is to see if Ryugu (and other asteroids like it) might carry the chemical building blocks for life, which would lend credence to the theory that asteroid impacts "seeded" Earth with the materials needed for bacteria and more complex lifeforms to develop.

The Hayabusa2 mission was launched in December 2014 and will return to Earth with its samples in 2020.

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