The Japanese prospecting spacecraft Hayabusa 2 has captured the most detailed images to date of its target – the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. Once at the asteroid, Hayabusa 2 will deploy a lander and three small rovers, before obtaining surface samples for return, and creating an artificial crater on the surface of the asteroid.

Hayabusa 2 is the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA's) successor mission to the historic Hayabusa mission, which remains to this day the only spacecraft to return to Earth a surface sample that was collected from a solar system asteroid. Hayabusa 2 borrowed heavily from its predecessor in terms of design and appearance, however numerous upgrades were made to improve the reliability of the mission, and to its suite of scientific instruments.

The Japanese probe was launched back in December 2014 atop a H-IIA rocket from Tanegashima Space Center on an ambitious mission to shed light on the formation of our solar system, the origins of Earth's oceans, and the emergence of life on our blue planet. Like its predecessor, it will (hopefully) accomplish these lofty goals by observing and harvesting material from a wandering asteroid.

Hayabusa 2 harbors an exciting payload of scientific instruments with which to complete its mission. Alongside the usual cutting-edge spectrographs and imagers, the probe also carries a small lander that will descend to the asteroid to make in situ observations of the surface. The lightweight lander is capable of performing a single "jump," allowing it to shift its position and gather more valuable data.

The lander will be joined on the surface by three rovers, which will hop across the asteroid snapping images and gathering temperature data. This fleet of miniature robotic explorers are not the only trick up Hayabusa 2's well-engineered sleeve.

The mothership will also carry an instrument capable of creating an artificial surface crater by accelerating a 2-kg (4.4-lb) copper projectile into the asteroid at a speed of 2 km (1.2 miles) per second. This will allow the probe's instruments to observe the chemical and physical properties of fresh subsurface material, revealing insights regarding the structure and composition of the asteroid.

Of course, the main goal of the mission will be to obtain surface samples and return them to Earth. If all goes to plan, Hayabusa 2 will spend about a year and a half around and on the comet, before returning to Earth in 2020, and sending the asteroid sample back to its creators in a capsule designed to survive atmospheric re-entry.

Before any of this can happen, Hayabusa 2 must characterize and understand the asteroid upon which it hopes to land on, and generally interfere with. The newly released images of Ryugu represent a major step in the right direction.

The shots were captured by the probe's telephoto optical navigation camera on June 17, at distances ranging from 330-240 km (205-149 miles). As Hayabusa 2 draws ever nearer to Ryugu, the shape and surface features of the wandering asteroid will become much clearer.

The new images begin to resolve the shape of the 900 m (3,000 ft) -wide asteroid, and even reveal large surface details, including a 200 m (656 ft) -diameter stretch of crater-like terrain, and a prominent equatorial bulge. The imagery also highlights the rotational movement of the asteroid, which spins in the opposite direction to Earth, completing one full turn roughly once every 7.5 hours.

As was the case with ESA's Rosetta spacecraft and comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, Hayabusa 2's mission operators will need extensive data and imagery of Ryugu In order to assess any potential dangers to the spacecraft, and eventually, to settle on a landing site.

Hayabusa 2 is currently just 124 km (77 miles) away from Ryugu, with the spacecraft set to rendezvous with the near-Earth object on June 27th.

Source: JAXA

View gallery - 2 images