Yesterday, Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft came tantalisingly close to Ryugu, offering an unprecedented view of the asteroid’s boulder-strewn surface.
Mission planners are preparing for a procedure that will see Hayabusa2 collect samples of rock and dust from Ryugu’s surface. Yesterday’s descent was done to measure the weak gravitational pull exerted by the kilometre-wide asteroid.
The latest descent began August 6 around 11:00AM Japan time, when Hayabusa2 was about 20km away from Ryugu. At around 8:30PM the same day, the probe began to free fall towards the asteroid upon reaching an altitude of 6km. Hayabusa2 got to within 851m of the asteroid around 8:10AM yesterday, at which point it engaged its thrusters to move away from the rock again.
During the descent, Hayabusa2 snapped photos with its telephoto optical navigation camera (ONC-T) and its wide-angle optical navigation camera (ONC-W). The 10m scale bar at the bottom of the photos provide the needed perspective. What looks like a few rocks strewn across the surface are actually large boulders.
During the gravity measurement operation, JAXA scientists carefully monitored the movement of the spacecraft as it made its free fall and rise, observing the strength of the asteroid’s gravity on the probe.
JAXA still has to decide where it wants the probe to extract its surface samples, and where to deploy the additional tiny surface probes. This should happen in a couple of months, with the probe hopefully returning to Earth with its samples in late 2020.
But as these new photos show, Ryugu’s surface is complex and treacherous. Choosing an ideal landing site won’t be easy.