The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully landed two small rovers on near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu on September 21st, 2018. The successful detachment of the two rovers from the Hayabusa2 spacecraft was confirmed yesterday.
Hayabusa2 is a spacecraft that was launched in late 2014. It arrived at the asteroid named Ryugu in June 2018. The spacecraft is fitted with four detachable rovers. MINERVA-II is the name of the Hayabusa2 component that housed and later released the two small rovers (Rover-1A and Rover-1B) that landed on Ryugu the other day. One of the remaining rovers (MASCOT) will be released in October, and the fourth rover (MINERVA-II-2) will be detached next year.
The recently landed rovers are small, cylindrical devices that will navigate the asteroid by hopping along its surface. The rovers will help map the asteroid’s surface using their stereo cameras, wide-angle cameras, and thermometers. Ryugu is about .6 miles in diameter.
The ultimate goal of the Hayabusa2 mission is to map Ryugu’s surface in detail and to eventually perform a sample-return mission to Earth. Scientists are hoping that studying Ryugu using Hayabusa2’s various rovers and scientific instruments will help improve our understanding of our solar system’s early evolution.
Hayabusa2 is the successor to JAXA’s Hayabusa mission which was launched towards asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2003 and returned to Earth with samples in 2010. Hayabusa2 builds upon many of the failures of the original Hayabusa mission, such as the MINERVA lander failing to land on the asteroid and the return-sample consisting of a very small amount of grainy asteroid dirt.
The U.S. space agency NASA is also conducting a similar asteroid sample-return mission with its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The NASA spacecraft was launched in mid-2016 and is expected to return samples from asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2023.
Watch the video below, courtesy of Space.com’s YouTube channel, for an animated summary of Hayabusa2’s recent successes: