Eric Warner Staff Writer
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on Sept. 21 was able to successfully deploy two MINERVA-II1 rovers onto an asteroid called Ryugu from a ‘mothership’ dubbed Hayabusa-2. This is the first time any space program has ever successfully landed a rover onto a moving asteroid. For reference, asteroids move in space at an average of 25 kilometers per second, so this is a tremendous feat to land not one but two rovers onto an asteroid without any sign of damage.
Hayabusa-2’s mission, according to JAXA, is “to study the origin and evolution of the solar system as well as materials for life by leveraging the experience acquired from the Hayabusa mission.” Asteroids are essentially floating debris from the beginning of our solar system, so scientists are trying to extract samples to help discover new information on the origin and formation of our solar system.
Ryugu is a C-type asteroid which indicates that this planetary debris is more likely to contain organic and hydrated materials. “Minerals and seawater which form the Earth as well as materials for life are believed to be strongly connected in the primitive solar nebula in the early solar system, thus we expect to clarify the origin of life by analyzing samples acquired from a primordial celestial body such as a C-type asteroid to study organic matter and water in the solar system and how they coexist while affecting each other,” stated JAXA.
The MINEVRA-II1 rovers, commonly referred to as Rover-1A and 1B, are designed to bounce about on the asteroid while scanning for different spikes in temperature and taking photos. Having a rover hop on the surface is better than having it move on wheels, as wheels will cause the rover to inadvertently push itself away from asteroid, according to the members of JAXA. The first image was taken by Rover-1A on September 21; it’s a fairly blurry photo showing a glimpse of Hayabusa-2 orbiting the asteroid and a bit of the asteroids surface itself.
Over the past week, the rovers have been sending multiple images back to Earth, each one clearer than the last. On Oct. 3, the rovers will be joined by a German built rover called Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT). MASCOT will gather material from the asteroid. Later on, Hayabusa-2 will release Rover-2, possibly in the November/December time period when JAXA will lose contact with Hayabusa-2. This loss of contact will be due to the solar conjunction where the sun will move in between Hayabusa-2 and Earth; we won’t know if this mission was a true success until January of 2019.
While we wait to see if these hitchhikers will survive this winter, the technology used to create these rovers is an astounding achievement on its own that will almost certainly be used or upgraded on future missions. These rovers have surely lived up to the Minerva name as they help to continue our understanding of our origins and solar system.