Photos reveal stunning moment Japan lands rovers on asteroid

24 Sep 2018

Illustration of Rover-1A (background) and Rover-1B (foreground) from Minerva-II1 as they explore the surface of Ryugu. Image: JAXA

Japan’s space agency has managed to surpass ESA’s achievement of landing a craft on an asteroid by landing two rovers on another.

When the European Space Agency (ESA) landed Philae on Comet 67p a couple of years ago, the science community and world at large celebrated humankind’s first physical interaction with an asteroid, even if it didn’t exactly go according to plan.

But now, the Japanese space agency – referred to as JAXA – has managed to achieve an even greater feat with the successful landing of two small rovers on the surface of another asteroid called Ryugu.

Taking to Twitter, JAXA announced the news with some blurry – yet incredible – images taken by one of the rovers after its separation from the Hayabusa2 spacecraft.

Unlike the photos of Comet 67p taken by Rosetta, these are the first ever close-up images of an asteroid in colour.

The mission to the near-Earth asteroid began more than three years ago in an attempt to land rovers on Ryugu’s surface. Having now landed in one piece, the rovers will bounce across its surface, while taking a number of measurements and readings using its array of sensors.

Rather than just attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before, the mission is of major scientific importance. This is because, in addition to the Minerva-II1 rovers, another craft will soon launch from Hayabusa2 with the intention of collecting samples of the ancient space debris’ surface.

‘I cannot find words to express how happy I am’

On 3 October, the Hayabusa2 mothership will deploy a ship called Mascot, which was developed in Europe by the German Aerospace Center and France’s space agency, CNES, and analyse the samples remotely. Later that month, the original Hayabusa2 craft will descend on Ryugu and do what has never been done before: return a sample to Earth.

Once the spacecraft reaches the surface, it will fire a bullet at great speed into Ryugu, with the resulting blasted particles being collected by a catcher. By the end of 2020, the Hayabusa2 will return to Earth with three containers holding the asteroid samples, which will be collected by researchers.

“I cannot find words to express how happy I am that we were able to realise mobile exploration on the surface of an asteroid,” said Yuichi Tsuda, project manager for the Hayabusa2 mission. “I am proud that Hayabusa2 was able to contribute to the creation of this technology for a new method of space exploration by surface movement on small bodies.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic