A Japanese spacecraft that will return a sample of an asteroid to Earth has taken some fascinating initial images of the asteroid as it makes its approach.
Called Hayabusa 2, the spacecraft is heading towards an asteroid called Ryugu, which is currently about 280 million kilometers (175 million miles) from Earth. It is currently less than 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the asteroid, and is scheduled to approach to about 20 kilometers (12 miles) on June 27.
Before then, it has been busy snapping images as it approaches, using its ONC-T camera (Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic). And these have started to reveal some interesting features about the asteroid.
Already scientists have noticed its rather odd shape, which has been compared to a dumpling. It also had a number of noticeable craters, including one particularly large one, and spins oppositely to its orbit around the Sun – known as retrograde rotation. And when the spacecraft arrives, there’s going to be some pretty amazing science taking place.
On board the spacecraft are no fewer than five landers that will be sent to the surface. One is a German-built device called MASCOT, which has the ability to jump once on the surface, and will perform close-up observations.
Then there are three small rovers called MINERVA-II, which will bounce along the surface to study it up close. You can see sort of what they look like in this image.
The fifth one is best of all, however. It’s technically not a lander but an impactor, and it will be used to slam into the surface and form a crater. This will expose fresh material from inside the asteroid.
At a later date, Hayabusa 2 will descend to the surface, and collect material from this crater with a capture device that involves firing a projectile into the ground and scooping up material.
As its name implies, this is the successor mission to the original Hayabusa, which in 2010 returned the first ever samples of an asteroid to Earth, after a bit of a troubled mission. That mission also employed a lander, called MINERVA, which failed. And its collection system failed too.
JAXA says it has learned from the mistakes from that mission, and is hopeful that everything will go a bit more smoothly this time. In August, the spacecraft will descend to about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from the surface.
In September or October it will release some or all of its landers, aiming to depart with a sample in December 2019 and return to Earth in 2020. Yes, it is a really awesome mission. Here’s hoping it all goes to plan.