Hayabusa Sends Back Photos and Video From Surface of Asteroid Ryugu

It’s not every day that a robot sends back footage from the surface of an asteroid, but today is such a day. The Japanese Hayabusa mission successfully deployed several small robots last week, and now we’ve gotten a batch of images and video from the little drum-shaped drones. This is just the beginning of Hayabusa’s science operations, but it’s still pretty fascinating.

JAXA’s Hayabusa probe began closing on the asteroid Ryugu over the summer, following a zig-zag pattern to maneuver into position. Just a few days ago, the spacecraft jettisoned a payload called MINERVA-II1. Inside that barrel-shaped shell were the “rovers” known as MINERVA-II1A and MINERVA-II1B.

It’s not exactly fair to call the landers rovers because they don’t have any wheels — they are wheels. Ryugu is just a few hundred meters across, so its gravity isn’t enough to hold a small rover down while its wheels spin. Something like Curiosity or Opportunity would just float away. So, MINERVA-II1A and MINERVA-II1B contain motors that let them shift their weight to hop across the surface. It could take as long as 15 minutes for the rovers to come to a stop after each hop, but there are cameras and temperature sensors spread across the surface to capture data no matter how they land.

The surface explorers have taken numerous images of the terrain, including close-up shots of the terrain and even one that shows rover 1A’s antenna casting a shadow. Hayabusa itself also captured a high-resolution image of the asteroid’s surface as it descended to drop off the rovers. JAXA just released that one as well.

As for the video, well, don’t get your hopes up. A video is technically just a collection of still frames, and that’s what this looks like. MINERVA-II1A captured the 15-frame video on September 23 between 10:34 and 11:48 JST. So, that’s one frame every 4-5 minutes, making it a somewhat jerky timelapse. However, it’s a jerky timelapse from the surface of an asteroid, and that’s still awesome.

Hayabusa will pepper Ryugu with several more robots as the mission progresses, and then it will try to scoop up a sample of the asteroid to send back to Earth. It will make a total of three attempts with the first two making use of a kinetic slug fired at the surface. The hope is it will launch material toward the probe for collection. The third attempt will use a small explosive projectile to create a crater from which Hayabusa can collect sub-surface material. This part of the mission won’t begin until next year.

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