Japan’s MINERVA-II rovers have sent back a batch of new photos from Ryugu, including a stunning new video taken from the asteroid’s rocky surface.
The 15-frame video was captured by MINERVA-II2, also known as Rover 1B, on September 23, the same day that it and its companion, MINERVA-II1, landed on Ryugu, an asteroid located 174 million miles (280 million kilometers) from Earth. The rovers were dispatched by Japan’s Hayabusa2 space probe, which arrived in orbit around the asteroid back in June.
MINERVA-II, in case you were wondering, stands for “MIcro Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid, the second generation,” the first generation being MINERVA from JAXA’s first Hayabusa mission.
The short clip shows Ryugu’s grey, dusty, and uninviting rock-strewn surface. The Sun can be seen drifting brightly from left to right as the asteroid tumbles through space. A sexy lens flair adds to the dramatic effect of seeing this truly alien world through the eyes of MINERVA-II2's camera, of which it has three (MINERVA-II1 has only one).
Pause for a moment to reflect on what you’re actually seeing here, and celebrate this truly remarkable achievement.
JAXA, Japan’s space agency, also released a bunch of new photos, some taken by MINERVA-II and some by the Hayabusa2 probe during its most recent approach.
The MINERVA-II probes are true rovers, capable of moving across the asteroid’s surface. But instead of using wheels or crawlers, these probes relocate themselves by hopping across the surface. Each rover has a small motor that produces the tiny amount of force needed to make a jump. Conventional wheels or tank-like treads wouldn’t work, as these forms of locomotion would send the probes hurtling back into space, owing to Ryugu’s exceptionally weak gravity.
This hopping strategy appears to be working. On September 23, Rover 1B performed its first jump, taking pictures in the process (in space, no one can hear you “WHEEEEEEEE!”).
On September 21, Hayabusa2 took a stunning photograph (above) of Ryugu from a distance of about 210 feet (64 meters). It’s the highest-resolution photo of the asteroid’s surface taken during the mission so far.
Meanwhile, JAXA engineers are close to deciding the location of Hayabusa2's landing site, from where it use its horn to extract samples from the asteroid’s surface. A new photo (below) shows three candidate sites, of which L08 is currently the favorite. Unlike the images taken by the MINERVA-II rovers, this area looks relatively smooth and even, and it’s no surprise JAXA mission controllers are seriously considering these three spots. No formal decision has yet been made, with JAXA saying it’s continuing to evaluate potential sites.
Unlike the MINERVA-II probes, Hayabusa2 is coming back home. Armed with its surface samples, the spacecraft should return to Earth in 2023. But there’s still a lot of science, and a perilous landing, to complete first.