Japan's space agency completed a complicated touchdown maneuver at a distant space rock last month, and it has now released an incredible video from the spacecraft's point of view.
The spacecraft, Hayabusa2, is conducting a sample-return mission at a near-Earth asteroid called Ryugu, and last month's touchdown was perhaps the single most important maneuver of the mission. The new video shows what happened during the procedure, which occured on Feb. 21.
First, the spacecraft eases itself down toward the asteroid's rocky surface. Then, it immediately bounces back up, leaving a burst of flying rubble in its wake as it retreats up to safety.
What we don't see in that video is what caused the chaos: the spacecraft firing its sampling apparatus — basically a sophisticated bullet — and sucking up some of the debris it created. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) practiced the procedure earlier this year on Earth, using an artificial asteroid — a glorified bucket of gravel — designed to mimic Ryugu's structure and rock composition.
But knowing that it worked on Earth isn't nearly the same as watching the procedure unfold on a distant space rock. The footage was captured by a camera that was funded by public donations, JAXA noted.
Although the sampling procedure was the spacecraft's masterpiece maneuver, the mission still has a few tasks to accomplish before Hayabusa2 heads for home. First, in April, the spacecraft will create an artificial crater, then examine it to see what happened.
There are more surface operations to come as well. In early summer, the spacecraft may touch down for a second time, inside this new crater, to get a different perspective on it. Then, in late summer, the spacecraft will deploy the last of its onboard rovers to get another look at the rocky surface.
At the end of the year, Hayabusa2 will begin its yearlong journey back to Earth — and at the end of 2020, scientists will finally be able to hold in their hands the result of last month's stunning space boop.
- Japan Just Shot a Fake Asteroid with a Space Bullet … for Science
- Hop, Don't Roll: How the Tiny Japanese Rovers on Asteroid Ryugu Move
- RIP, MASCOT: Hopping Lander Meets Its End on Asteroid Ryugu
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Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.