Hayabusa 2 Prepares to Land on Distant Asteroid

Hayabusa 2 spacecraft approaches to within 400 meters of the surface of the 162173 Ryugu asteroid on August 6.
Hayabusa 2 will touchdown on the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu, collect samples and return them to Earth | Image source: JAXA

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 has made its closest approach to the Ryugu asteroid yet after arriving in mid-June. The approach brought the spacecraft within less than one kilometer of the surface of the asteroid.

The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft arrived at the near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu on June 27, 2018. Since arriving, the spacecraft has proceeded through a number of decent operations taking it from an altitude of 20 kilometers to as little as 400 meters above the surface of the asteroid. The latest set of decent operations began in early August and are being used to measure the asteroid’s gravitational forces.

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 has descended to within 400 meters of the surface of the 162173 Ryugu asteroid.
Imagery of the Ryugu asteroid captured by the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft’s Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic (ONC-T) on July 20, 2018 at an altitude of 6km | Image source: JAXA

To accurately map the gravitational forces being exerted by the asteroid, JAXA ground controllers disable the spacecraft’s rocket control thrusters. This allows onboard sensors to calculate the effect of Ryugu’s gravitational field on the spacecraft. Following reaching a 400-meter minimum altitude on August 6, Hayabusa 2 fired jets to climb away from the asteroid.

Once gravitational measurements have been completed, navigators at JAXA’s control center in Sagamihara will be able to determine a suitable landing site for the first of three planned touchdowns. If all goes well, the agency plans to complete the first touchdown and rover deployment between September and October this year. Touchdowns two and three and the second rover deployment are planned for the first half of 2019.

In addition to the touchdown and rover operations, the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft will conduct a crater generation operation between March and April 2019. It will see operators release an impactor that will create an artificial crater on the surface of the asteroid. The spacecraft will then touchdown near the crater location in order to allow the rover to collect samples.

Following the completion of all scientific operations, Hayabusa 2 will depart the asteroid towards the end of 2019 to begin its journey home. It is expected to return to Earth by December 2020.

Andrew Parsonson is a space enthusiast and the founder of Rocket Rundown. He has worked as a journalist and blogger for various industries for over 5 years and has a passion for both fictional and real-life space travel. Currently, Andrew is the primary writer for Rocket Rundown as we look to expand our reach and credibility.