Japanese spacecraft drops robot onto asteroid to hunt for the origin of the solar system

'A land full of wonder, mystery and danger! I landed on asteroid Ryugu!'

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 03 October 2018 10:06
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Japanese space agency releases stunning images taken from surface of an asteroid

A robot has been successfully dropped onto an asteroid millions of miles from Earth – and will now hunt for the origin of the solar system.

The German-French device known as MASCOT landed on an asteroid called Ryugu when it was dropped by a Japanese spacecraft. The spacecraft has been floating around the asteroid in recent days, and already dropped two devices to explore its surfacewhich sent back stunning photo and videos of the world.

The robot had live tweeted its own descent to the asteroid. "I’m doing it! I’m descending to Ryugu! Can’t stop me now!" its engineers posted on an account devoted to MASCOT.

It then posted to say it had landed successfully. "And then I found myself in a place like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery and danger! I landed on asteroid Ryugu!"

It will now spend its time measuring and taking pictures of the surface. It has already successfully collected some 20 images, which are stored on the mothership known as Hayabusa2 ready to be looked at scientists.

The spacecraft went as close as about 50 meters to the asteroid's surface to release the box-shaped lander.

Hayabusa2 has been stationed near the asteroid since June after travelling 170 million miles from Earth. After its mission is finished, it will fly all that way back again.

About an hour after the separation, the space agency, known as JAXA, said it had received signals from MASCOT, an indication of its safe landing.

JAXA's Hayabusa project manager, Yuichi Tsuda, confirmed the landing at a news conference.

The lander's deployment follows the successful landing last month of two MINERVA-II1 jumping observation rovers that have transmitted a series of images showing the asteroid's rocky surface.

Hayabusa2 dropped MASCOT on the opposite hemisphere of the jumping rovers so they don't interfere with each other's activity, JAXA said.

It took more than three years for the Hayabusa2 spacecraft to reach the asteroid's vicinity, traveling with the probes. Hayabusa2 will later attempt to briefly land on the asteroid itself to collect samples to send back to researchers on Earth.

The two successful landings of the probes provide a boost of confidence ahead of an upcoming landing of Hayabusa2 itself, though that will be a greater challenge, Tsuda said.

The lithium battery-run MASCOT can operate 16 straight hours — while the asteroid revolves twice — to collect and transmit data, including temperature and mineral varieties. The probe bounces only once after its initial touchdown before settling at its final destination.

According to JAXA, MASCOT is carrying an optical navigation wide-angle camera on its side to capture images of its surroundings. A spectroscopic microscope on the bottom is designed to examine minerals on the asteroid's surface. MASCOT will also measure levels of magnetic force and temperature on the asteroid.

Additional reporting by agencies

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