Japan releases rovers towards asteroid

Federico Mansilla
Setiembre 23, 2018

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Minerva-II1 rover captured this view of asteroid Ryugu (bottom) and the Hayabusa2 spacecraft (at top right) just after the rover separated from the spacecraft on September 21, 2018.

The asteroid is believed to contain organic substances and hydrated minerals, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency hopes the readings will shed further light on the origin and evolution of the solar system.

The rover mission marks the world's first moving, robotic observation of an asteroid surface, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Taking advantage of the asteroid's low gravity, they will jump around on the surface - soaring as high as 15 metres and staying in the air for as long as 15 minutes - to survey the asteroid's physical features with cameras and sensors. "We don't have confirmation yet, but we are very, very hopeful", JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda told reporters. "I'm excited about seeing the pictures".

The cylindrical rovers - measuring just 18 centimetres across - will make small hops on the asteroid, capture images of the surface and measure temperatures.

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The agency tried but failed in 2005 to land a rover on another asteroid in a similar mission.

Next month, Hayabusa2 will deploy an "impactor" that will explode above the asteroid, shooting a 2-kg (4-lb.) copper object into the surface to blast a crater a few meters in diameter.

The probe will also release a French-German landing vehicle named the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) for surface observation.

That probe, with help from NASA, returned from a smaller, potato-shaped asteroid in 2010 with dust samples - despite various setbacks during its epic seven-year odyssey - and was hailed a scientific triumph.

The explorer was launched at the Tanegashima Space Centre in southern Japan in December 2014.

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