The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has talked a lot about how the Hayabusa2 mission aims to return a sample of the asteroid Ryugu to Earth. That might be the “main event,” but Hayabusa2 is still putting on a good opening act as it peppers the asteroid with robotic explorers. After deploying a pair of robots a week ago, the team has now launched a third one called MASCOT.
The previous robotic explorers, MINERVA-II1A and MINERVA-II1B, landed on the surface at the end of September. These drum-shaped devices are not technically “rovers” as we think of them, but they have a similar mission. Each unit is ringed with temperature sensors and cameras to help map the surface of Ryugu. However, the gravity of this half-mile asteroid is too low for a wheeled rover to work — it would just float away. So, the MINERVA robots have internal motors that let them hop across the surface.
MASCOT has a similar method of locomotion, but it’s not round. The boxy MASCOT robot had to employ its hopping motors shortly after landing because the team determined it was sitting at a bad angle. There was no time to waste with MASCOT. Unlike the MINERVA landers, this robot doesn’t have solar panels. It runs entirely from an internal battery that lasts about 16 hours.
The German space agency (DLR) built MASCOT for the Hayabusa2 mission. It includes a suite of cameras, temperature sensors, and instruments to analyze the geology of Ryugu. The team posted a picture (below) of the robot making its descent to the surface in the early hours of October 3rd. As of this posting, MASCOT has several more hours of juice to complete its mission.
Next up for Hayabusa2, it will deploy another wave of MINERVA robots on the surface of the asteroid. These will be the last landers before the main event starts. Early next year, JAXA will start the sample collection phase of the mission in three parts. The first two consist of floating down to the surface, and firing solid metal slugs into the regolith. The goal is to launch dust toward the probe for collection. The third requires Hayabusa2 to access material that’s currently buried beneath the surface. It will use a small explosive projectile to make a crater before diving in to scoop up material. In total, JAXA hopes to send 100 milligrams of dust back to Earth.
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