History was made when the Japanese space agency, JAXA, successfully landed two rovers onto an asteroid named Ryugu. According to CNN , the two rovers, named MINERVA-II, collectively make up the world’s first mobile exploration robot to ever traverse the surface of an asteroid.
Scientists have attempted to explore asteroids in the past. National Geographic reported that in 2005, Hayabusa1, the current probe’s predecessor, released the probes that were intended to land on the asteroid Itokawa while the spacecraft was too high. Consequently, the canister carrying the probes flew off into space, ending any chance of success for their mission. Thus, this mission is an opportunity for both advancement in science as well as redemption for the Japanese space agency. Unlike previous spacecrafts which move using wheels, Japan’s successful rovers navigate the asteroid by hopping. This mission could provide an explanation for one of the most prominent scientific mysteries of all time: where did life on Earth come from?
Because gravity is so weak on Ryugu, a rover with normal wheels or crawlers would simply float upwards when it moved. The rovers hop by rotating a “torquer” that causes a reaction force with significant horizontal velocity. MINERVA- II are projected to remain airborne for up to 15 minutes for a single hop and can successfully take pictures while in the air. They are designed to move autonomously, without control from Earth.
The rovers are already sending back footage and high-resolution images of Ryugu’s surface, which have been posted on Twitter. The images depict boulders and patches of the asteroid, framed by a black sky. Furthermore, according to BBC News, in late October, the rover will take rock and soil samples from the exterior surface of the asteroid.
“What JAXA has accomplished in landing its rovers on the asteroid is really groundbreaking. Samples, images, and footage of the asteroid will allow scientists to better understand the mechanics of our solar system,” Junior Nikhil Kulkarni said.
JAXA further plans to create a crater in order to gather samples that have been unaffected by the environment. They will also measure surface temperatures on the asteroid using temperature gauges. Additionally, according to BBC News , Ryugu is a relic from the beginning of the solar system and can provide information regarding the origin and formation of our own planet. The asteroid is believed to be a C-type asteroid, which have organic material and water. Although C-type asteroids are common, not many make it to Earth due to the fact that they easily burn up when entering Earth’s atmosphere. By studying Ryugu, scientists will be able to learn about the evolution of the solar system and also provide hints about the formation of Earth’s oceans and life. JAXA scientists expects this asteroid to be “rich in water and organic materials,” providing insight towards “interactions between the building blocks of Earth and the evolution of its oceans and life.” “
With these missions, scientists are taking great strides in learning more about the universe. Through international cooperation, our understanding of the solar system could remarkably improve,” Senior Adrian Jiang.
Later in the mission, the spacecrafts Hayabusa2, which carried the rovers, will land on the asteroid. They will then proceed to blow up a small crater on Ryugu using explosives. By doing so, the spacecraft will be able to take samples of the asteroid below the surface that have not yet been exposed. With this news, it is evident that JAXA is paving its way towards a comeback.