Japan's asteroid mission has deployed its last rover to explore Ryugu's rocky surface.
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft has been exploring the asteroid since June 2018, and it deployed three other landers to the asteroid's surface last fall. Then, the mission switched its focus to sample collection. But now, Hayabusa2 is executing its last remaining task before turning for Earth: deploying its final rover, dubbed MINERVA-II2.
That process began on Wednesday (Oct. 2) when the main spacecraft lowered itself to 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) above the asteroid's surface to release MINERVA-II2. That's much higher above the surface than its twins, MINERVA-II1A and MINERVA-II1B, were deployed, at about 165 feet (50 meters) above Ryugu's surface.
The different approach is necessary because this rover is tackling different questions than its predecessors. The Hayabusa2 scientists want to be able to study the rover's long, slow path down to Ryugu's surface, with the main spacecraft watching its journey from an altitude of about 5 miles (8-10 km). The lengthy descent will also let scientists more accurately study the gravitational field exerted by the asteroid.
MINERVA-II2 was expected to leave the main spacecraft traveling at a speed between 5.1 and 6.7 inches per second (13 to 17 centimeters per second). The separation maneuver took place at 11:57 p.m. EDT Oct. 2 (Oct. 3 at 0357 GMT, or 12:57 a.m. local time at mission control in Japan).
Before the deployment occurred, Hayabusa2 dropped two target markers onto the asteroid in a rehearsal maneuver conducted on Sept. 16. The MINERVA-II2 rover is expected to continue work until Oct. 8.
The main Hayabusa2 spacecraft will turn to Earth before the end of this year, ferrying the sample container full of precious bits of Ryugu. That capsule will land in the deserts of South Australia late in 2020, giving scientists an opportunity to analyze the asteroid in terrestrial labs.
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