Video showing the touchdown and ascent at four-times normal speed.
GIF: JAXA/Gizmodo

An encouraging new video released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency shows Hayabusa2 briefly touching down on the surface of Ryugu, capturing the climactic moment when the spacecraft fired a bullet into the asteroid’s surface.

JAXA’s Hayabusa2 probe bounced off the Ryugu asteroid on February 21, 2019, a rapid maneuver in which it discharged its sample collection instrument. Assuming all went well, Hayabusa2 scooped up bits of asteroidal debris into its sample horn, which the probe will return to Earth for analysis in late 2020. By all appearances, the operation was a success, but we won’t know for sure until Hayabusa2 returns home and its sample chamber is opened.

A new video released yesterday by JAXA is further proof that the operation went according to plan. During its descent, the probe’s small monitoring camera, CAM-H, offered a perfect view of the approach, showing Hayabusa2 moving toward the asteroid. The spacecraft can be seen briefly touching down on the asteroid and then rising up again, its distinctive, shrinking shadow clearly visible on the surface. A cloud of spinning, shimmering debris follows the probe during its ascent—a strong indication that the procedure worked.

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Indeed, the sheer amount of debris seen in the video is a welcome sight. The video prompted a Hayabusa2 team member to say, “the potential for sample collection is high,” during a JAXA press conference held yesterday, as reported by The Planetary Society. It’s not definitive proof that debris entered into the sample horn, but debris clearly came into contact with the probe: an asteroid shard got stuck onto a navigation camera lens during the operation, reports The Planetary Society (no word on how this development may affect the performance of the camera or the probe).

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A previous photo released by JAXA suggested Hayabusa2’s projectile hit the asteroid; an odd dark spot can now be seen at the landing site. It wasn’t totally clear, however, if Hayabusa2 was in the immediate vicinity of the asteroid when the tantalum bullet struck the asteroid, and/or if the impact caused enough debris to spew out from Ryugu in the vicinity of the probe. This latest video is a strong indication that both these things occurred.

So far so good, but Hayabusa2 still has work to do. Starting in April, the spacecraft will begin a sequence of operations that will see it extract subsurface material from Ryugu. The probe will create a crater by dropping a small explosive device onto the asteroid, followed by a touchdown to scoop up the debris.

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[The Planetary Society]