Wednesday, 19 September, 2018

Japanese Spacecraft Hurtling Towards an Asteroid Shaped Like a Gemstone

Artist concept of Haybusa2 approaching asteroid 162173 Ryugu Artist concept of Haybusa2 approaching asteroid 162173 Ryugu
Theresa Hayes | 29 June, 2018, 19:14

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft has made a successful rendezvous with the asteroid Ryugu, 177 million miles from Earth.

"From a distance, Ryugu initially appeared round, then gradually turned into a square before becoming a lovely shape similar to fluorite [a vibrant mineral sometimes used in jewelry]", project manager Yuichi Tsuda said in the JAXA statement. As soon as it "wakes up", the spacecraft will then proceed with deploying more tiny rovers including a copper projectile that will create a crater on the asteroid from where samples will be collected. Hayabusa2 will spend about two months looking for suitable landing places on the uneven surface. "On the other hand, there is a peak in the vicinity of the equator and a number of large craters, which makes the selection of the landing points both interesting and hard".

That said, the team has already achieved a mighty feat by reaching the 900-meter-wide rock at all - something it described as the equivalent of hitting a 6-centimeter (2.4-inch) target at 20,000 kilometers (12,400 miles) away.

Ryugu is thought to contain relatively large amounts of organic matter and water, the stuff of life, and scientists hope samples taken from the asteroid will offer clues about what gave rise to life on Earth. The first touchdown is slated to take place this fall, in September or October, while the final one is scheduled for next spring, in April or May.

Asteroids are among the oldest objects in the solar system and as such, they may help explain how earth evolved, including the formation of oceans and the start of life.

According to the agency, the 600-kg Hayabusa2, which was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan in December 2014, has experienced no problems throughout its journey totaling 3.2 billion km.

It also said it is equipped with three miniature rovers which can roam the surface of the asteroid and conduct close-up probes. While that sample return mission to an asteroid did surpass the reclaiming of a very minute sample of asteroid dust in 2010, the mission faced a lot of impediments and stopped working.

Samples obtained from Bennu are expected to return to Earth on the Osiris-Rex in 2023. The Japanese space explorer arrived at an asteroid Wednesday after a three and half a year journey and now begins its real work of trying to blow a crater to collect samples to eventually bring back to Earth.

The stunning photograph, taken from a distance of just 25 miles (40km), shows for the first time the intricate details of surface features like dents, craters and boulders.

Asteroid Ryugu, seen at a distance of 40km on 24 June 2018.

"In other words, arriving at Ryugu is the same as aiming at a 6-centimeter target in Brazil from Japan", the agency said.

In this August 31, 2014, photo, asteroid explorer Hayabusa2 is displayed to media by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) at its facility in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.