Japan's trailblazing Hayabusa 2 space probe has captured physical evidence of the trail it has blazed, snapping an awe-inspiring photograph of a discolored touchdown zone moments after its rendezvous with the asteroid Ryugu.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)'s Hayabusa 2 probe finally touched down on the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu last Friday following a journey of more than four years through space. One of the key objectives for mission scientists was to momentarily touch down, blast the surface with metal projectile and collect the disturbed dust to return it to Earth.
This tricky maneuver went off without a hitch, with the scientists able to confirm the spacecraft successfully lowered itself to the surface, fired metal projectile into the gravely surface and collected the samples. It has now returned to its "home" position, orbiting Ryugu at an altitude of around 20 km (12.4 mi).
An image captured by Hayabusa 2 around a minute after contact was made from an altitude of around 25 m (82 ft) shows the aftermath of this touchdown in fine detail. In it we see the shadow of the spacecraft itself, along with what looks like scorched markings on the surface. According to JAXA, this discoloring could be the result of dirt that was stirred up by the projectile or by the thrusters when the spacecraft took off again. Here is the image in full.
The asteroid samples collected by Hayabusa 2 will be returned to Earth in late 2020 for study, all going to plan. Because the asteroid is thought to have gone largely unchanged since the formation of the Solar System some 4.6 billion years ago, scientists are hopeful the dust may reveal some of its earliest secrets, including clues as to how life itself formed.
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