Check out this image of asteroid 1998 KY26 from the Subaru Telescope. It’s not exactly beautiful, but it’s not intended to be. The compelling thing about this image isn’t its attractiveness, it’s the context. This small asteroid is the next target for Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft.
Hayabusa2 was launched in 2014 to meet up with asteroid Ryugu. It successfully captured a sample from Ryugu and returned it to Earth in a capsule in December 2020. Now it’s headed toward its second target, 1998 KY26.
1998 KY26 is a Near-Earth Object in the Apollo Group. It’s tiny, only about 30 meters in diameter. It orbits the Sun about once every 16 months, at a distance between 1 and 1.5 AU. During its orbit, it comes as close to Earth as the Moon does, making it an ideal target for visitation.
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1998 KY26 is also a water-rich asteroid, which helps make it an intriguing target. It’s an X-type asteroid, which is basically a category for several different types of asteroids with similar spectra but different compositions. Scientists also think that it’s a monolithic asteroid rather than a rubble-pile asteroid like recently-sampled Ryugu and Bennu.
In 2002, 1998 KY26 was NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, though the image was a simulation made up largely of radar observations.
These new images from the Subaru Telescope will help constrain the orbital parameters of the asteroid. The VLT performed similar observations.
“We successfully photographed the next target asteroid for Hayabusa2. We hope that these data will facilitate Hayabusa2’s new mission,” says Dr. Michitoshi Yoshida, Director of Subaru Telescope.
“After returning its reentry capsule to Earth, Hayabusa2 departed for a new target object, a small asteroid known as 1998 KY26. This will be the first mission to this small of an asteroid, so it is very meaningful in terms of planetary science and planetary defence (protecting Earth from collisions with stellar objects). These Subaru Telescope observations will not only become very important data for Hayabusa2’s extended mission; they will also give a boost to future missions. We are grateful to everyone at Subaru Telescope.” said Dr. Makoto Yoshikawa, the Hayabusa2 Mission Manager at ISAS, JAXA.
Today, January 5th, Hayabusa2 powered up its three ion engines to begin the journey to the rendezvous point with 1998 KY26. It’ll arrive at the tiny asteroid—the smallest ever visited—in July 2031. On the way, it’ll also flyby another asteroid named 98943 2001 CC21 in July 2026. That asteroid is a relatively uncommon L-type asteroid. Between 2021 and 2025, Hayabusa2 will also perform exoplanet observations.