History has been made thanks to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Japan’s national space agency was recently successful in landing two robots on a moving asteroid for the first time in history. The miraculous feat was not an easy one, as the Hayabusa2 spacecraft spent several years chasing the 162173 Ryugu asteroid before it was able to deploy two bots on its surface. Now, years of patience have paid off with the first images of the asteroid’s surface beamed back to Earth.
The two small rovers will help Hayabusa2 in its sample-return mission, which will allow scientists to learn more about the Earth-orbiting asteroid. They’re designed to take photographs from their wide-angle and stereo cameras and gather data. Hayabusa2 launched in 2014, eventually catching up with the asteroid in late June 2018. On September 21, 2018, the MINERVA II rover was launched, with JAXA confirming that it had touched down successfully and the two aircrafts it’s made of—Rover 1A and Rover 1B—were active and taking photos.
As the robots hop around the surface of the asteroid, they snap pictures along the way. The detailed, though sometimes blurry, images are our first up-close look at the surface of an asteroid. Located 174 million miles (280 million kilometers) from Earth, Ryugu measures 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) in diameter. Interestingly, the rocky, craggy surface doesn’t look as different as one might expect.
The asteroid itself is made of minerals, ice, and organic compounds. JAXA hopes that by studying the carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid, they’ll gain insight into the origins of inner planets and how water and organic compounds on Earth developed. Hayabusa2 will spend a little over a year studying the asteroid, before departing in December 2019. It’s estimated that it will take a year for the spacecraft to then return the samples to earth.