Japanese Rovers are Now on the Surface of an Asteroid, Sending Back Amazing Pictures

In December of 2014, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the Hayabusa2 mission. As the second spacecraft to bear this name, Hayabusa2 was deployed by JAXA to conduct a sample-return mission with an asteroid. By studying samples of the near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu, scientists hope to shed new light on the history of the early Solar System

The spacecraft arrived in orbit around Ryugu in July of 2018, where it will spend a total of a year and a half surveying the asteroid before returning to Earth. On September 23rd, the satellite deployed its onboard MINERVA-II rovers onto the surface of Ryugu. According to the latest updates from JAXA, both rovers are in good condition and have recently sent back photographs and a video of the asteroid’s surface.

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Hayabusa 2 to Flyby the Earth Tomorrow

A space-faring friend pays our fair planet a visit this week on the morning of December 3rd, as the Japanese Space Agency’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft passes the Earth.

The Flyby

Rick Baldridge on the SeeSat-L message board notes that Hayabusa-2 will pass 9,520 kilometers from the Earth’s center or 3,142 kilometers/1,885 miles from the Earth’s surface at 10:08 UT/5:08 AM EST on Thursday, December 3rd, passing from north-to-south above latitude 18.7 north, longitude 189.8 east just southwest of the Hawaiian Islands.

Unfortunately, the sighting opportunities for Hayabusa-2 aren’t stellar: even at its closest, the 1.5 meter-sized spacecraft is about nine times more distant than the International Space Station and satellites in low Earth orbit. To compound the challenge, Hayabusa-2 passes into the Earth’s shadow from 9:58 UT to 10:19 UT.

Image credit: JAXA
The path of Hayabusa-2 past the Earth. Image credit: JAXA

Still, skilled observers with large telescopes and sophisticated tracking rigs based along the Pacific Rim of North America might just catch sight of Hayabusa-2 as it speeds by. The JPL Horizons ephemeris generator is a great resource to create a customized positional chart in right ascension and declination for spacecraft for your given location, including Hayabusa-2.

Image credit: JAXA
The Earth-Moon pair snapped by Hayabusa-2 on November 26th from about three million kilometers distant. Image credit: JAXA

Hayabusa-2 won’t crack 20 degrees elevation for observers along the U.S. West Coast, putting it down in the atmospheric murk of additional air mass low to the horizon. This also tends to knock the brightness of objects down a magnitude or so… estimates place Hayabusa-2 at around magnitude +13 shortly before entering the Earth’s shadow. That’s pretty faint, but still, there are some dedicated observers with amazing rigs out there, and it’s quite possible someone could nab it. Hawaii-based observers should have the best shot at it, though again, it’ll be in the Earth’s shadow at its very closest…

Amateur radio satellite trackers are also on the hunt for the carrier-wave signal of the inbound Hayabusa-2 mission. You can also virtually fly along with the spacecraft until December 5th: (H/T @ImAstroNix):

A simulation of tomorrow's flyby. Image Credit: JAXA
A simulation of tomorrow’s flyby. Image Credit: JAXA

Probably the best eye-candy images will come from the spacecraft itself: already, Hayabusa-2 has already snapped some great images of the Earth-Moon pair using its ONC-T optical navigation camera during its inbound leg.

Image credit: JAXA
A close-up of Hayabusa-2’s view of the Earth and Moon. Image credit: JAXA

Other notable missions used Earth flybys en route to their final destinations, including Cassini in 1999, and Juno in 2013. Cassini’s return caused a bit of a stir as it has a plutonium-powered RTG aboard, though Earth and its inhabitants were never in danger. A nuclear RTG actually reentered during the return of Apollo 13, with no release of radioactive material. Meant for the ALSEP science package on the surface of the Moon, it was deposited on the reentry of the Lunar Module over the Marinas Trench in the South Pacific. And no, Hayabusa-2 carries no radioactive material, and in any event, it’s missing the Earth by about a quarter of its girth.

The successor to the Hayabusa (‘Peregrine Falcon’ in Japanese) mission which carried out a historic asteroid sample return from 25143 Itokawa in 2010, Hayabusa-2 launched atop an H-IIA rocket from Tanegashima, Japan exactly a year ago tomorrow on a six year mission to asteroid 162173 Ryugu. This week’s Earth flyby will boost the spacecraft an additional 1.6 kilometers per second to an outbound velocity towards its target of 31.9 kilometers per second post-flyby.

Image credit: JAXA
Launch of an H-IIA rocket with Hayabusa-2. Image credit: JAXA

Like its predecessor, Hayabusa-2 is a sample return mission. Unlike the original Hayabusa, however, Hayabusa-2 is more ambitious, also carrying the MASCOT (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) lander and an explosive seven kilogram impactor. Hayabusa-2 will deploy a secondary camera in orbit to watch the detonation and will briefly touch down at the impact site to collect material.

If all goes as planned, Hayabusa-2 will return to Earth in late 2020.

NASA has its own future asteroid sample return mission planned, named OSIRIS-REx. This mission will launch in September of next year to rendezvous with asteroid 101955 Bennu in September 2019 and return to Earth in September 2023.

An artist's conception on Hayabusa 2 at asteroid . Image credit: JAXA
An artist’s conception on Hayabusa 2 at asteroid 162173 Ryugu. Image credit: JAXA

We’re entering the golden age of asteroid exploration, for sure. And this all comes about as the U.S. authorized asteroid mining just last week (or at least, as stated, ‘asteroid utilization’) under the controversial U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. But the original Hayabusa mission brought back mere micro-meter-sized dust grains, highlighting just how difficult asteroid mining is using present technology…

Perhaps, for now, its more cost effective to simply wait for the asteroids to come to us as meteorites and just scoop ’em up. We’ll be keeping an eye out over the next few days for images of Hayabusa-2 as it speeds by, and more postcards of the Earth-Moon system from the spacecraft as it heads towards its 2018 rendezvous with destiny.

Weekly Space Hangout -March 13, 2015: Astrophysicist Katie Mack

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: Astrophysicist Katie Mack (@AstroKatie)

Guests:
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba)
Charles Black (@charlesblack / sen.com/charles-black)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
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Japan Successfully Launches Hayabusa 2 Asteroid Sample Return Mission

Japan successfully launched their Hayabusa-2 sample return mission to asteroid 1999 JU3, and JAXA reports the spacecraft is on course and in excellent shape, with its solar panels deployed. The H-IIA F26 rocket carrying the craft blasted off from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwest Japan at 1:22:04 p.m. local time on Dec 3, 2014 (04:22 UTC) , and about two hours later, the spacecraft separated from the rocket and entered its initial planned trajectory.

Hayabusa 2 has been communicating with JAXA mission control as it starts off on its journey to land on an asteroid in 2018 and retrieve rock and dust samples to be returned to Earth in late 2020.

The first Hayabusa spacecraft completed a successful — albeit nail-biting — mission to the asteroid Itokawa, returning samples to Earth in 2010 after first reaching the asteroid in 2005. The mission almost failed as the spacecraft was plagued by technical problems and it wasn’t certain if the mechanism used to capture the samples actually worked. Ultimately, after a circuitous and troubled-filled return trip home, the canister containing microscopic rock samples made a soft landing in Australia, the first time that samples from an asteroid had been brought back to Earth for study.

Hayabusa 2’s target, Asteroid 1999 JU3 is approximately 914 meters (3,000 feet) in diameter, a little larger than Itokawa, and is roughly spherical in shape, while Itokawa had an oblong shape. 1999 JU3 has a rotation period of approximately 7.6 hours.

To avoid a repetition of the glitches experienced by the first Hayabusa spacecraft, JAXA made several changes. Hayabusa 2 has an updated ion propulsion engine as well as improved guidance and navigation systems, new antennas and a new altitude control system.

Hayabusa 2 has a mini rover called Minerva 2, and for Hayabusa 2’s sample-collecting activities, a slowly descending impactor will be used, detonating upon contact with the surface instead of the high-speed projectile used by the first Hayabusa.

This video explains the Hayabusa 2 mission and how it differs from the first Hayabusa spacecraft:

JAXA’s Hayabusa website will provide current updates to the mission.

Watch Asteroids Whiz by the Earth-Moon System This Week as First Steps Toward Asteroid Exploration Leave the Launch Pad

It’s a dangerous universe out there, for a budding young space-faring species.

Killer comets, planet sterilizing gamma ray bursts, and death rocks from above are all potential hazards that an adolescent civilization has to watch out for.

This week offers two close shaves, as newly discovered Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) 2014 WC201 and 2014 WX202 pass by the Earth-Moon system.

The passage of 2014 WC201 is coming right up tonight, as the 27-metre space rock passes about 570,000 kilometres from the Earth. That’s 1.4 times farther than the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

Credit: JPL
The orbit of 2014 WC201. Credit: NASA/JPL.

And the good news is, the Virtual Telescope Project will be bringing the passage of 2014 WC201 live tonight starting at 23:00 Universal Time/6:00 PM EST.

Shining at an absolute magnitude of +26, 2014 WC201 will be visible as a +13 apparent magnitude “star” at closest approach at 4:51 UT (December 2nd)/11:51 PM EST (December 1st) moving through the constellation Ursa Major. This puts it within range of a large backyard telescope, though the 80% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon will definitely be a mitigating factor for observation.

The JPL Horizons ephemerides generator is an excellent place to start for crafting accurate coordinates for the asteroid for your location.

Credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.
A capture of NEO 2003 DZ15 from 2015. Credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.

At an estimated 27 metres/81 feet in size, 2014 WC201 will no doubt draw “house-sized” or “building-sized” comparisons in the press.  Larger than an F-15 jet fighter, asteroids such as WC201 cry out for some fresh new descriptive comparisons. Perhaps, as we near a “Star Wars year” in 2015, we could refer to 2014 WC201 as X-wing sized?

Another Apollo NEO also makes a close pass by the Earth this week, as 6-metre 2014 WX202 passes 400,000 kilometres (about the same average distance as the Earth to the Moon) from us at 19:56 UT/2:56 PM EST on December 7th.  Though closer than WC201, WX202 is much smaller and won’t be a good target for backyard scopes. Gianluca Masi over at the Virtual Telescope Project also notes that WX202 will also be a difficult target due to the nearly Full Moon later this week.

Credit JPL
The orbital path of NEO asteroid 2014 WX202. Credit: NASA/JPL

The last Full Moon of 2014 occurs on December 6th at 6:26 AM EST/11:26 Universal Time.

2014 WX202 has also generated some interest in the minor planet community due to its low velocity approach relative to the Earth. This, coupled with its Earth-like orbit, is suggestive of something that may have escaped the Earth-Moon system. Could WX202 be returning space junk or lunar ejecta? It’s happened before, as old Apollo hardware and boosters from China’s Chang’e missions have been initially identified as Near Earth Asteroids.

The Earth also occasionally hosts a temporary “quasi-moon,” as last occurred in 2006 with the capture of RH120. 2014 WX202 makes a series of more distant passes in the 2030s, and perhaps it will make the short list of near Earth asteroids for humans to explore in the coming decades.

And speaking of which, humanity is making two steps in this direction this week, with two high profile space launches.

First up is the launch of JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 from the Tanegashima Space Center on December 3rd at 4:22 UT/11:22 PM EST. The follow up to the Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission, Hayabusa 2 will rendezvous with asteroid 1999 JU3 in 2018 and return samples to Earth in late 2020. The vidcast for the launch of Hayabusa 2 goes live at 3:00 UT/10:00 PM EST on Tuesday, December 2nd.

And the next mission paving the way towards first boot prints on an asteroid is the launch of a Delta 4 Heavy rocket with EFT-1 from Cape Canaveral this Thursday morning on December 4th near sunrise at 7:05 AM EST/12:05 UT. EFT-1 is uncrewed, and will test key technologies including reentry on its two orbit flight. Expect to see crewed missions of Orion to begin around 2020, with a mission to an Earth crossing asteroid sometime in the decade after that.

Credit: NASA
NASA gotchu: An artist’s rendition of a future asteroid capture. Credit: NASA.

And there are some decent prospects to catch sight of EFT-1 on its first pass prior to its orbit raising burn over the Atlantic. Assuming EFT-1 lifts off at the beginning of its launch window, western Australia may see a good dusk pass 55 minutes after liftoff, and the southwestern U.S. may see a visible pass at dawn about 95 minutes after EFT-1 leaves the pad.

Credit: Orbitron
The footprint of EFT-1 on its first North American pass. Credit: Orbitron.

We’ll be tracking these prospects as the mission evolves on launch day via Twitter, and NASA TV will carry the launch live starting at 4:30 AM EST/9:30 UT.

The Orion capsule will come in hot on reentry at a blistering 32,000 kilometres per hour over four hours after liftoff in a reentry reminiscent of the early Apollo era.

Of course, if an asteroid the size of WC201 was on a collision course with the Earth it could spell a very bad day, at least in local terms.  For comparison, the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor was estimated to be 18 metres in size, and the 1908 Tunguska impactor was estimated to be 60 metres across. And about 50,000 years ago, a 50 metre in diameter space rock came blazing in over the ponderosa pine trees near what would one day be the city of Flagstaff, Arizona to create the 1,200 metre diameter Barringer Meteor Crater you can visit today.

Photo by author
A fragment of the Barringer meteorite on display at the Lowell Observatory. Photo by author.

All the more reason to study hazardous space rocks and the technology needed to reach one in the event that we one day need to move one out of the way!

Hayabusa 2 Mission Approved by Japanese Government

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In 2010, the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa completed an exciting although nail-biting mission to the asteroid Itokawa, successfully returning samples to Earth after first reaching the asteroid in 2005; the mission almost failed, with the spacecraft plagued by technical problems. The canister containing the microscopic rock samples made a soft landing in Australia, the first time that samples from an asteroid had been brought back to Earth for study.

Now, the Japanese government has approved a follow-up mission, Hayabusa 2. This time the probe is scheduled to be launched in 2014 and rendezvous with the asteroid known as 1999 JU3 in mid-2018. Samples would again be taken and returned to Earth in late 2020.

1999 JU3 is approximately 914 metres (3,000 feet) in diameter, a little larger than Itokawa, and is roughly spherical in shape, whereas Itokawa was much more oblong.

As is common for any space agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is working with tight budgets and deadlines to make this next mission happen. There is a possibility of a back-up launch window in 2015, but if that deadline is also not met, the mission will have to wait another decade to launch.

The asteroid Itokawa, visited by Hayabusa in 2005. Credit: JAXA

One of the main problems with Hayabusa was the failure of the sampling mechanism during the “landing” (actually more of a brief contact with the surface with the sample capturing device) to retrieve the samples for delivery back to Earth. Only a small amount of material made it into the sample capsule, but which was fortunate and ultimately made the mission a limited success. The microscopic grains were confirmed to have primarily come from Itokawa itself and are still being studied today.

To avoid a repetition of the glitches experienced by Hayabusa, some fundamental changes needed to be made.

This next spacecraft will use an updated ion propulsion engine, the same propulsion system used by Hayabusa, as well as improved guidance and navigation systems, new antennas and a new altitude control system.

For Hayabusa 2’s sample-collecting activities, a slowly descending impactor will be used, detonating upon contact with the surface, instead of the high-speed projectile used by Hayabusa. Perhaps not quite as dramatic, but hopefully more likely to succeed. Like its predecessor, the main objective of the mission is to collect as much surface material as possible for delivery back home.

Hopefully Hayabusa 2 will not be hampered by the same problems as Hayabusa; if JAXA can achieve this, it will be exciting to have samples returned from a second asteroid as well, which can only help to further our understanding of the history and formation of the solar system, and by extrapolation, even other solar systems as well.