After travelling for over three and a half years through the hostile environment of outer space, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) Hayabusa 2 spacecraft has successfully made orbit around the asteroid Ryugu. The ambitious mission will see the probe observe the asteroid, create an artificial crater on its surface, and eventually, return a sample of the wandering solar system body to Earth.
Hayabusa 2's mission is to explore an asteroid, which is essentially a hunk of leftover material from the creation of the solar system. The data collected will help scientists understand how the planets that orbit our Sun came to form, the origins of Earth's oceans, and the building blocks for life.
Whilst the spacecraft itself will be responsible for remotely observing, collecting samples, and even creating an artificial crater on the surface of Ryugu, the robotic explorer will not shoulder the burden of its ambitious mission alone. The industrious probe carries with it a fleet of little helpers, including a lander and three small rovers, which will hop around exploring and documenting the asteroid's pockmarked surface.
The shape of Ryugu gradually became clear as Hayabusa 2 drew nearer to the asteroid. While it first took on a dumpling-like appearance, the ever-diminishing distance soon allowed the probe to discern its true shape. Side-on, Ryugu's prominent equatorial bulge makes the asteroid appear like a diamond, or a dice balanced on its edge.
On June 27 Hayabusa 2 fired its chemical propulsion thrusters as part of a pre-programmed command sequence that had been uploaded to the spacecraft earlier that day. On 9:35 a.m. JST (20:35 p.m. ET), JAXA received confirmation that the thruster had performed nominally, and that Hayabusa 2 had made orbit, and was maintaining a distance of 20 km (12 miles) from the asteroid.
In the coming weeks, the mission team will direct Hayabusa 2 to continue remotely observing the asteroid as they look to identify potential landing points for the spacecraft to gently touch down and collect samples.
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