by Kammy Bogue
After the Rosetta Mission to Comet 67P, the space faring community have been excited by the new prospect of probing asteroids. These celestial bodies are a hot topic for research, in large part because we believe many to be unchanged since the early universe. There’s also a popular theory that asteroids brought organic molecules and water to Earth, so learning more about them could be extremely eye-opening.
Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency’s latest poster child comes in the form of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft. Currently in orbit around the Ryugu asteroid, it deployed two tiny ‘rovers’ on the asteroid’s surface at 12:06 am EDT on September 21st. This was an incredible feat, the first of its kind, and the rovers themselves are an ingenious piece of equipment. Smaller than a cereal box and weighing barely over a kilogram, they have been hopping around on Ryugu’s surface and beaming back pictures and videos to Earth. Because the gravitational pull of the asteroid is very weak, traditional roving to collect data is rendered ineffective. These ‘rovers’ instead hop from place to place, lasting as long as 15 minutes in the air and covering up to 50m of horizontal distance at a time.
The first attempt at this mission, which launched in 2003, was generally very successful even in the face of great adversity. The Hayabusa craft obtained lots of information about the Itokawa asteroid, and returned over 1500 samples from its surface to Earth. This mission also had a MINERVA lander on board, however this rover was unable to land on the asteroid’s surface. Luckily, the new Hayabusa2 mission did not face as many difficulties, and its successful landings of MINERVA explorers should undoubtedly be a cause for celebration – Congratulations Japan!