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Japanese spacecraft drops box-shaped robot on asteroid’s surface

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Hayabusa2 makes its third deposit

An artistic rendering of MASCOT.
Image: DLR

Overnight, Japan’s asteroid-sampling spacecraft Hayabusa2 deployed its third robot onto the surface of an asteroid named Ryugu more than 186 million miles from Earth. This time, the robotic explorer is a tiny, box-shaped lander crafted by Germany and France’s space agencies, dubbed MASCOT. While on the asteroid, the robot will hop around slowly and study the surface in detail, measuring things like temperature and the composition of nearby rocks.

The landing comes less than two weeks after Hayabusa2 also dropped a pair of tiny cylindrical rovers on Ryugu’s surface. That marked the first time that any kind of mobile robot had landed on an asteroid. The two rovers, named Rover-1A and 1B, don’t have wheels; instead, they “hop” around the surface, thanks to internal motors that shift their momentum. These hops are slow, though, taking 15 minutes to complete. That’s because Ryugu is just a little more than half a mile across, and it doesn’t have a very strong gravitational pull. Since their landing, the rovers have been hopping around gathering stunning images of the asteroid’s surface.

MASCOT is also able to move around in a similar way to Rover-1A and Rover-1B. In fact, engineers already opted to move the lander once it had reached the surface last night because they found that it was sitting at a bad angle. The mission team switched on MASCOT’s mobility system, shifting the robot’s position and placing it in a much more favorable orientation. The German space agency DLR says that now all of MASCOT’s instruments are working just fine and are continuing to collect data.

The lander has a suite of four instruments on board to characterize Ryugu. These will allow MASCOT to take pictures, measure temperatures, figure out the different minerals on the asteroid, and measure the space rock’s magnetic field. However, MASCOT’s time on the surface of Ryugu is limited. It doesn’t have any solar panels, so it’s operating entirely off of an internal battery that lasts just 16 hours. The mission team says that, as of this morning, the lander has under seven hours left to complete its work.

Meanwhile, there’s more to come from Hayabusa2. The spacecraft, operated by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, arrived at Ryugu this summer and will remain at the asteroid over the next year, in order to collect multiple samples from its surface. Plus, Hayabusa2 still has one last rover to deploy on Ryugu as well. Stay tuned because there’s much more to come for this asteroid-sampling mission.