The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft's latest photo of the Ryugu asteroid, taken from a distance of just 40km, shows for the first time surface features such as boulders and craters, in addition to revealing the object's unique dice-like appearance. (A few special guest stars contributed their visions, as well.) Some images are hazardous, some tasty and some just plain amusing: the image here is the director general of JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences (and Hayabusa2's former project manager) Hitoshi Kuninaka's take on one possible, puzzling form for the asteroid. The Ryugu is spinning about 7.5 hours as compared to other Type C asteroids that spin around 3 hours.
Japanese researchers will use Hayabusa2's current vantage point to study the asteroid and evaluate possible sites for collecting samples.
Hayabusa, which is Japanese for "peregrine falcon", is due to return to Earth with its cache of samples in November 2020.
Ryugu's seemingly octahedron-like shape means the direction of gravitational force on the wide areas of the asteroid will not point directly down; it's not a flawless sphere. In 2006, the first Hayabusa craft managed to touch down on the surface of the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa three times - revealing that instead of being a chunk of solid rock, the asteroid was essentially "a bunch of rubble being held together by shared gravity", as NPR's Joe Palca reported.
"From a distance, Ryugu initially appeared round, then gradually turned into a square before becoming a lovely shape similar to fluorite [known as the "firefly stone" in Japanese]".
Hayabusa Two's approach has also allowed Jaxa to determine the asteroid's orbit is retrograde, meaning it spins in the opposite direction to the Sun and the Earth.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the Japanese space probe set out on its nearly four-year journey to investigate the origin of life on Earth.
Asteroids are believed to have formed at the dawn of the solar system and scientists say Ryugu may contain organic matter that may have contributed to life on Earth.
Hayabusa 2 has been travelling toward the space rock Ryugu since launching from the Tanegashima spaceport in 2014. "Touchdown means we get the surface material", Yoshikawa told the BBC.
Known as an "impactor", this projectile is meant to blow a small crater of the asteroid's surface, which will enable the space probe to gather fresh samples that haven't been exposed to radiation. For one thing, the asteroid's shape is fairly irregular, which makes for a complicated landing, said Tsuda.
"First of all, the rotation axis of the asteroid is perpendicular to the orbit", he said.
'On the other hand, there is a peak in the vicinity of the equator and a number of large craters, which makes the selection of the landing points both interesting and hard'.
The probe will observe the surface with its camera and sensing equipment but will also drop tiny MINERVA-II rover robots as well as a French-German landing package named Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) for surface observation.