More than four years have passed since JAXA's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft set sail for the asteroid Ryugu, and mission scientists are now preparing for the intrepid probe to start bearing fruit. Before heading in for a closer look itself, the probe will drop a pair of small rovers onto the asteroid this week, which will bounce across the surface and scope out the scene.
The Hayabusa 2 probe was launched in 2014 and follows in the footsteps of the historic Hayabusa mission, which remains the only spacecraft to grab a sample of material from a solar system asteroid and return it to Earth.
The mission brief calls for a close observation of the asteroid Ryugu using a next-generation suite of scientific instruments. It will also fire a 2 kg (4.4-lb) copper projectile into the surface to create an artificial crater and kick up buried material for examination, use a grapple to swing in and collect samples, and deploy its large MASCOT lander to the surface.
But before any of that goes down, it will deploy couple of robotic scouts to use cameras and sensors to image the surface and gather temperature data. Dubbed the Minerva-II1 rovers (Rover-1A and 1B), the small landers are now being prepared for deployment and are expected to touch down on Ryugu this week.
The hexagonal rovers measure 18 cm across (7 in), 7 cm (2.7 in) tall and weigh just 1.1 kg (2.4 lb) apiece. Once they touch down, the rovers will bounce across the surface using a rotating motor that springs them into the air to cover distances up to 15 m (49 ft) in each hop. They will remain airborne for up to 15 minutes at a time due to the very weak gravity on the surface of Ryugu, and move autonomously, deciding on their own which direction to explore in.
The observations made by the Minerva-II1 rovers will help mission scientists characterize the asteroid and pick out a safe landing spot for Hayabusa 2.
Much like NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, it's hoped the material and information harvested from Ryugu will provide scientists with insights about the early formation of our solar system. Primitive asteroids have undergone little change over billions of years, and analyzing samples at an atomic level may reveal organic compounds such as sugars and amino acids that can serve as the building blocks of life.
Hayabusa 2 will spend around 18 months at Ryugu, and is expected to return to Earth in late 2020.
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