Technology & Science

Lander joins tiny rovers on asteroid Ryugu

A Japanese spacecraft dropped a French-German lander on an asteroid Wednesday to take temperature readings and identify minerals on the surface that could provide clues about the origin of the solar system.

French-German MASCOT lander has microscope that can identify minerals

This computer graphic image provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout, or MASCOT, lander on the asteroid Ryugu. The Japanese unmanned spacecraft Hayabusa2 dropped the German-French observation device, MASCOT, on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, to land on the asteroid as part of a research effort intended to find clues to the origin of the solar system. (JAXA via Associated Press)

A German-French observation device safely landed on an asteroid on Wednesday after a Japanese spacecraft released it as part of a research effort that could find clues about the origin of the solar system, Japanese space officials said.

The Japan Space Exploration Agency said the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout, or MASCOT, was released from the unmanned spacecraft Hayabusa2 and successfully landed on the asteroid Ryugu.

The spacecraft went as close as about 50 metres (160 feet) to the asteroid's surface to release the box-shaped lander. Hayabusa2 has been stationed near the asteroid since June after travelling 280 million kilometres (170 million miles) from Earth.

About an hour after the separation, the space agency, known as JAXA, said it had received signals from MASCOT, an indication of its safe landing.

JAXA's Hayabusa project manager, Yuichi Tsuda, confirmed the landing at a news conference. JAXA collaborated with the German Aerospace Center and France's Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales in the MASCOT project.

The lander's deployment follows the successful landing last month of two MINERVA-II1 observation rovers that have transmitted a series of images showing the asteroid's rocky surface.

Hayabusa2 dropped MASCOT on the opposite hemisphere from the rovers so they don't interfere with each other's activity, JAXA said.

It took more than three years for the Hayabusa2 spacecraft to reach the asteroid's vicinity. Hayabusa2 will later attempt to briefly land on the asteroid itself to collect samples to send back to researchers on Earth.

The two successful landings of the probes provide a boost of confidence ahead of the upcoming landing of Hayabusa2, though that will be a greater challenge, Tsuda said.

Bounce to new location

The lithium battery-run MASCOT was expected to operate 16 hours — while the asteroid revolves twice — to collect and transmit data, including temperature and mineral varieties. After its observation activity at the initial landing spot, it was to bounce to a second location to collect another set of samples there.

In fact, the battery lasted longer than expected, and the lander made an extra bounce.

According to JAXA, MASCOT is carrying a wide-angle camera on its side to capture images of its surroundings. A spectroscopic microscope on the bottom is designed to examine minerals on the asteroid's surface. MASCOT will also measure the magnetic force and temperature on the asteroid.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.