Japan’s Hyabusa2 mothership delays landing on asteroid
There’s a quite a bit of excitement surrounding the JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) Hyabusa2 project, and rightly so — launched in Dec. 2014, the mothership and its hopping probes have not only reached the Ryugu asteroid, but have also sent back stunning images of the asteroid’s surface, giving us a close view of these flying chunks of space rock. However, JAXA will have to wait a little longer to get physical samples from the asteroid: the mothership's landing on Ryugu has been delayed until January.
The Hyabusa2 project consists of three separate phases. First, after the mothership arrived in Ryugu’s orbit, two solar powered hoppers named MINERVA-II 1A and MINERVA-II 1B were sent to scour the surface, taking a different approach to traditional wheeled rovers by leveraging the weak gravity to literally jump from point to point. Following this came MASCOT, a smaller, more short-lived lander tasked with collecting some more preliminary data about the asteroid, which was then sent back to the Hyabusa2 mothership, as reported by SPACE.com.
The last phase of the project involves landing the mothership onto the asteroid itself to collect physical samples. These samples would then be returned to Earth some time around Dec. 2020. However, JAXA recently announced that this phase of the mission, originally scheduled for late October, will be delayed until early January of next year, as reported by Gadgets 360.
The problem is fairly simple: there's no surface on the asteroid flat enough to stage a good landing. After analyzing the data collected by the hoppers, the project team concluded that Ryugu’s surface is far more uneven than originally anticipated, making it very difficult to land the mothership without potentially damaging the craft in a hard landing. And, when you’re dealing with a piece of highly specialized spacefaring hardware that cost $260 million to build, the last thing you’d want to do is knock a few screws loose. So, for now, the mothership is maintaining its orbit while the team back on Earth uses the gathered data to find a suitable landing location.
While the current conditions may worry some, the team is confident that the mission will succeed, basing their optimism on the success of the first Hyabusa mission, which achieved its goals despite numerous setbacks and was lauded as a scientific triumph.
Though no one can say for sure whether Hyabusa2 will return to Earth with the promised samples, late is better than never, and scientists are hopeful that with this new data, we can make greater strides towards answering some of the most interesting questions about our place in the universe.