Our home planet and its moon are but specks against the vast blackness of space in this image from the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa 2. The robotic explorer is currently flying past the Earth to redirect its trajectory into the main asteroid belt.
The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft launched in December 2014, and is currently approaching the Earth to pick up velocity and bend its trajectory during a flyby to propel it towards the asteroid Ryugu. Once it reaches its destination in the main asteroid belt in July 2018, the spacecraft and its on-board army of minions will thoroughly investigate the rock before collecting samples to return to Earth.
The photograph was snapped on November 26, 2015; the closest-approach of the flyby will be on December 3, 2015. Aside from being a gorgeous look at home, the photograph also served as an opportunity to test out Hayabusa’s instruments for post-launch calibration.
The Earth and Moon at 12:46m JST on November 26, 2015 from approximately 3 million kilometers away. Image credit: JAXA
Hayabusa 2 isn’t alone during this flyby. Along with its small horde of on-board minions, it’s travelling with companions. The Hayabusa 2, PROCYON, Artsat2-Despatch, and Shin’en 2 spacecraft all hitched a ride to space together. PROCYON is a smaller proof-of-concept rig intended to do a simple asteroid flyby in January 2016, but its ion engines conked out so it’s just doing as much science as it can while unable to properly manoeuvre. Both Artsat2-Despatch and Shin’en 2 are ham radio projects: Shin’en 2 is destined for lunar orbit while Artsat2-Despatch is a 3D printed sculpture that JAXA will monitor for durability in the harsh environment of space. Between them, this is the largest constellation of spacecraft to all flyby the Earth together. For an added bonus, they might also be accompanied by the dead husk of the second stage of the H2 rocket that launched them into orbit, boosting that record to 3 active objects and 2 passive ones in a staggered parade past our planet.
This is the second spacecraft to wear the name Hayabusa (はやぶさ), which translates as “Peregrine Falcon.” This is the sequel to a spacecraft that suffered just about every mishap imaginable while still completing its asteroid sample return mission.