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Asteroid Day serves as a teachable moment

Today’s 112th anniversary of a close brush with a cosmic catastrophe serves as a teachable moment about the perils and prospects posed by near-Earth asteroids.

Asteroid Day is timed to commemorate a blast from space that occurred over a Siberian forest back on June 30, 1908. The explosion, thought to have been caused by the breakup of an asteroid or comet, wiped out millions of acres of trees — but because the area was so remote, the death toll was minimal.

Because of the Tunguska blast and more recent close calls, such as the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor blast, the threat from above is being taken more seriously. And although a Seattle-area asteroid mining venture called Planetary Resources fizzled, experts say the idea of extracting resources from near-Earth asteroids is worth taking seriously as well.

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Asteroid probe carries samples back toward Earth

Asteroid Ryugu
An image from Hayabusa 2’s camera shows the half-mile-wide, diamond-shaped asteroid known as Ryugu receding in the metaphorical rear-view mirror. (JAXA, Chiba Institute of Technology and Collaborators)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft and its science team bid a bittersweet farewell to the asteroid Ryugu, 180 million miles from Earth, and began the months-long return trip to Earth with a precious set of samples.

“This is an emotional moment!” the team tweeted on Nov. 12.

“It’s sad to say goodbye to Ryugu,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda said at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s command center. “Literally it has been at the center of our lives over the past one and a half years.”

The farewell isn’t finished quite yet, however. Over the next few days, Hayabusa 2’s camera will capture pictures of the half-mile-wide asteroid as it recedes into the background of space. Then the probe’s field of view will turn back toward Earth for the return journey.

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Watch a Japanese probe blast an asteroid

If there was ever any doubt that Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft was able to get access to samples from an asteroid called Ryugu last month, a video released today should put those doubts to rest.

The black-and-white video clip, shot by the probe’s CAM-H monitoring camera, shows the sampling horn being lowered to the sunlit surface. Hayabusa 2 creeps nearer and nearer to its shadow, and suddenly there’s a spray of debris as the probe fires a bullet made of tantalum and backs away.

“Rocks reaching sizes of several tens of centimeters in diameter were ejected,” the Hayabusa 2 team said today in a science status report. “Many chips of this released debris are flattened plate-shaped and appear to reach quite a high altitude.”

Hayabusa 2’s sampling horn is designed to capture some of that debris. “The potential for sample collection is high,” the team reported.

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Hayabusa 2 probe touches down on asteroid

Hayabusa 2 after touchdown
An image captured just after the Hayabusa 2’s touchdown on asteroid Ryugu shows the H-shaped shadow of the spacecraft and its solar panels. The dark splotch represents material disturbed by the sample collection operation. (JAXA Photo via Twitter)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft successfully touched down today on asteroid Ryugu, more than 200 million miles from Earth, during an operation aimed at blasting away and collecting a sample from the space rock.

The 18-foot-wide spacecraft was programmed to extend a yard-long tube to touch the surface, shoot a bullet made of tantalum into the asteroid and collect the bits of rock and dust thrown up by the impact.

In a series of tweets, the mission management team said telemetry confirmed that the bullet was fired and that the spacecraft was heading back to its stationkeeping position, 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) above the asteroid.

“Based on this, we determined touchdown was successful!” the Hayabusa 2 team tweeted. “A detailed analysis will now be done.”

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Lander captures views of asteroid’s rugged terrain

Ryugu's surface
The MASCOT lander’s view of asteroid Ryugu’s lumpy, bumpy surface was displayed during a post-mission news conference. Click on the image for more from German science writer Daniel Fischer’s Skyweek 2.0 website. (DLR Photo / Processed by Daniel Fischer)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe and the German-French MASCOT lander have teamed up to send back amazing views of an asteroid that’s more than 180 million miles from Earth, including a snapshot of the lander falling toward the asteroid and an on-the-ground view of its rocky terrain.

Scientists shared the images today at the International Astronautical Congress in Germany, during a recap of MASCOT’s successful 17-hour survey of the asteroid Ryugu. Hayabusa 2, which has been hovering above the half-mile-wide asteroid for weeks, dropped the foot-wide, boxy lander onto the surface on Oct. 3.

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Lander plops down on asteroid for 17-hour survey

MASCOT lander
An artist’s conception shows MASCOT on the surface of asteroid Ryugu. (JAXA Illustration)

A robotic probe the size of a shoebox set itself down on the asteroid Ryugu, more than 180 million miles from Earth, and conducted a 17-hour survey of its rocky surroundings.

The foot-wide, German-built lander is called MASCOT, which stands for Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout. It was ejected from Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe from a height of 51 meters (167 feet) and drifted downward to Ryugu at walking speed.

“It could not have gone better,” Tra-Mi Ho, MASCOT project manager at the DLR Institute of Space Systems, said today in a status update. “From the lander’s telemetry, we were able to see that it separated from the mothercraft and made contact with the asteroid surface approximately 20 minutes later.”

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Check out Hayabusa 2 mission’s asteroid close-ups

Ryugu close-up
This image of the asteroid Ryugo was captured by the Hayabusa 2 probe’s ONC-T camera at an altitude of about 64 meters (210 feet). Image was taken on Sept. 21. A large boulder is at bottom left, along with a scale bar indicating the length of 1 meter. (Credit: JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, Aizu University, AIST)

The scientists and engineers behind Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission made history last week when the mission’s mothership dropped two mini-rovers onto the surface of the asteroid Ryugu, 180 million miles from Earth, but they’re not resting on their laurels.

The first rovers to hop around an asteroid’s surface have continued to send back pictures of their travels — and so has the main spacecraft, which is keeping watch dozens of miles above them.

One of the pictures shows a high-resolution view of Ryugu’s surface from above, highlighted by a big boulder’s sharp shadow. The image was captured by the main spacecraft’s telescopic optical navigation camera, or ONC-T, as it closed in on Ryugu for the rover drop on Sept. 21.

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Hopping rovers send back pictures from asteroid

View of Ryugu
An image from the Hayabusa 2 mission’s Rover-1A shows the surface of the asteroid Ryugu at left. The bright white region is due to sunlight. The image, captured at 11:44 a.m. JST Sept. 22 (7:44 p.m. PT Sept. 21), is blurry because it was taken while the rover was in the middle of a hop over the surface. (JAXA Photo)

Two mini-rovers have sent their first pictures back from the surface of the asteroid Ryugu, a day after they were dropped off by Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft.

The pictures are blurry because they were taken while the rovers were falling and hopping around the half-mile-wide asteroid, more than 180 million miles from Earth.

As fuzzy as they are, the photos represent a huge victory for the $150 million Hayabusa 2 mission, which was launched nearly four years ago to get an unprecedented look at the surface of an asteroid.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency first tried to put a rover on the surface of an asteroid more than a decade ago, during a mission to a space rock called Itokawa. That part of the mission fizzled, however, when the MINERVA rover carrier missed the mark and sailed off into interplanetary space.

Hayabusa 2, in contrast, dropped its MINERVA-II-1 carrier right on target. The carrier deployed two 7-inch-wide, disk-shaped rovers that touched down on Ryugu’s rock-strewn terrain.

It took a while to get the pictures back to Earth because they had to be uploaded from the rovers to the mothership — and then relayed back to Earth for processing.

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Hayabusa 2 probe drops off rovers at asteroid

Hayabusa 2's shadow
Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe takes a picture of the asteroid Ryugu from a distance of about 135 meters (440 feet) with its own shadow seen on the surface. (JAXA Photo)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe began the climactic phase of its mission overnight by sending out its first two rovers as it hovered less than 200 feet over an half-mile-wide asteroid, more than 180 million miles from Earth.

During the drop-off, the 18-foot-wide spacecraft even took a picture of its own shadow, spread out on the asteroid Ryugu’s rocky surface like a black-and-white copy of the Canadian flag.

The release of Hayabusa 2’s MINERVA-II-1 rovers occurred at 9:06 p.m. PT Sept. 20, mission controllers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency reported in a tweet. Hayabusa 2 dipped as low as 55 meters (180 feet) for the release, then retreated back from the asteroid.

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Hayabusa 2 probe closes in on an asteroid

Hayabusa 2 views of Ryugu
A series of pictures from Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe shows views of the asteroid Ryugu during the spacecraft’s approach. The closest views were captured from a distance of about 100 kilometers (62 miles), and reveal craters and boulders on the asteroid’s turning surface. (JAXA Photos)

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a dumpling … It’s a “Star Trek” Borg cube … It’s the asteroid Ryugu!

Our view of Ryugu, a half-mile-wide space rock nearly 180 million miles from Earth, is coming into sharper focus with the approach of the Japanese probe Hayabusa 2.

Three and a half years after its launch, the spacecraft is now within 35 miles of the asteroid, closing in on what’s expected to be a standoff orbital distance of 12 miles. The pictures that it’s been sending back throughout the approach provide enough detail to reveal Ryugu’s blocky shape.

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