A Japanese spacecraft released two small rovers on an asteroid which could provide clues to the origin of the solar system. Two Minerva-II-1 rovers were lowered from the unmanned spacecraft Hayabusa2 to the asteroid Ryugu, said the Japan Space Exploration Agency.
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In June, the spacecraft arrived near the asteroid, about 280 million kilometres (170 million miles) from Earth.
Confirmation of the robots’ safe touchdown has to wait until it receives data from them. Hayabusa approached as close as 55 meters (180 feet) to the asteroid to lower the rovers, waited for a minute and then rose back to its waiting position about 20 kilometres (12 miles) above the surface. However, the release was successfully, said the space agency.
The solar-powered rovers’ voltage plunged on Ryugu, a sign that they are on the asteroid, said Hayabusa project team spokesman Takashi Kubota. The two rovers are 7-inch wide and 2.8 inch-tall. They are likely to capture images of the asteroid and measure surface temperatures before a larger rover and a lander are released later. The rovers move by “hopping” because the extremely weak gravity on the asteroid makes rolling difficult. They can continue jumping as long as their solar panels and power last, JAXA said.
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"Gravity on the surface of Ryugu is very weak, so a rover propelled by normal wheels or crawlers would float upwards as soon as it started to move," mission team members wrote in a MINERVA-II1 description.
Hayabusa2 is all set to attempt three brief touch-and-go landings on the asteroid to collect samples in hopes of providing clues to the origin of the solar system and life on Earth. Since it arrived at Ryugu, scientists have been looking for suitable landing sites on the uneven surface, and its first attempt is expected in October.
The spacecraft is set to release a German-French lander called MASCOT carrying four observation devices in early October and a bigger rover called Minerva-II-2 next year. Hayabusa2, launched in December 2014, is due to return to Earth in late 2020.
(With inputs from agencies)