Japan launched the Hayabusa2 spacecraft back in November 2014 for a mission that sent it in the path of the Ryugu asteroid in September 2018. When the two objects finally met, the Hayabusa2 deployed two miniature rovers to the asteroid’s surface, which have been conducting research on the origins of the solar system across the asteroids surface ever since.
Back in April the space cannon the spacecraft is equipped with hit Ryugu with a copper bullet, exposing its innards. The subsurface samples that resulted from the blast are considered to be priceless for research. By analyzing them, the scientists would learn more about what forms asteroids and find out more information about the early days of our solar system.
Because of this, Japan’s space agency, JAXA, decided to look into possible ways for the spacecraft to land on the asteroid in order to gather some of the rocks scattered around after the impact.
The biggest problem with this situation was the fact that Ryugu is quite rocky, which means that the odds were not necessarily in the favor of the spacecraft.
“We would like to cover Mercury all the way to Jupiter,” Hitoshi Kuninaka, director general of Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) said before the mission. “For the future missions, Hayabusa2, the second touchdown, will play a very important role. It’s a major pivotal point and a cornerstone.”
JAXA decided it was worth taking the risk and Hayabusa2 started its descent onto Rygu following the guide of a reflective marker it had dropped on the surface, from above, earlier in June. The descent was fully autonomous and the spacecraft received no manual help from the team back on Earth.
Hayabusa2 reached an altitude of 30 meters at 5:56 p.m PT, which was when it found the marker’s location and begun to use it to position itself. It took Hayabusa2 15 minutes to descend 8.5 meters from the surface and then the final descent took place at 6:19 p.m PT and was confirmed as successful at 6:22 p.m PT by JAXA.
Shortly after touchdown, the space agency announced that the spacecraft was slowly rising back to a safer orbit.
The JAXA mission control erupted into a row applause upon hearing the news but Hayabusa2’s mission is far from done. The spacecraft still has to release another lander on the asteroid before returning to Earth. This lander is equipped with a thermometer and cameras and can jump around across the surface in the same manner a frog would.
After this lander is deployed, the spacecraft will begin its journey back home where it’s expected to deliver the rock samples in December 2020.