*Update, 22 February, 6:33 a.m.: Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully executed a challenging touchdown on asteroid Ryugu today at about 7:30 a.m. Japan time. Officials from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency confirmed that during an autonomous operation Hayabusa2 landed momentarily within a target site just 6 meters wide and fired a steel pellet into the surface of the asteroid in hopes of scattering fragments into a collection horn. Mission planners hoped to collect 10 grams of material, but the amount won't be known for sure until the sample container is returned to Earth in 2020. Hayabusa2 could make two more touchdowns to gather additional samples.
Here is our 4 January story previewing its historic touchdown plans:
YONAGO, JAPAN—Japan's Hayabusa mission made history in 2010 for bringing back to Earth the first samples ever collected on an asteroid. But the 7-year, 4-billion-kilometer odyssey was marked by degraded solar panels, innumerable mechanical failures, and a fuel explosion that knocked the spacecraft into a tumble and cut communications with ground control for 2 months. When planning its encore, Hayabusa2, Japan's scientists and engineers were determined to avoid such drama. They made components more robust, enhanced communications capabilities, and thoroughly tested new technologies.
But the target asteroid, Ryugu, had fresh surprises in store. "By looking at the details of every asteroid ever studied, we had expected to find at least some wide flat area suitable for a landing," says Yuichi Tsuda, Hayabusa2's project manager at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), which is headquartered in Sagamihara. Instead, when the spacecraft reached Ryugu in June 2018—at 290 million kilometers from Earth—it found a cragged, cratered, boulder-strewn surface that makes landing a daunting challenge. The first sampling touchdown, scheduled for October, was postponed until at least the end of this month, and at a symposium here on 21 and 22 December, ISAS engineers presented an audacious new plan to make a pinpoint landing between closely spaced boulders. "It's breathtaking," says Bruce Damer, an origins of life researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Yet most everything else has gone according to plan since Hayabusa2 was launched in December 2014. Its cameras and detectors have already provided clues to the asteroid's mass, density, and mineral and elemental composition, and three rovers dropped on the asteroid have examined the surface. At the symposium, ISAS researchers presented early results, including evidence of an abundance of organic material and hints that the asteroid's parent body once held water. Those findings "add to the evidence that asteroids rather than comets brought water and organic materials to Earth," says project scientist Seiichiro Watanabe of Nagoya University in Japan.
Ryugu is 1 kilometer across and 900 meters top to bottom, with a notable bulge around the equator, like a diamond. Visible light observations and computer modeling suggest it's a porous pile of rubble that likely agglomerated dust, rocks, and boulders after another asteroid or planetesimal slammed into its parent body during the early days of the solar system. Ryugu spins around its own axis once every 7.6 hours, but simulations suggest that during the early phase of its formation, it had a rotation period of only 3.5 hours. That probably produced the bulge, by causing surface landslides or pushing material outward from the core, Watanabe says. Analyzing surface material from the equator in an Earth-based laboratory could offer support for one of those scenarios, he adds. If the sample has been exposed to space weathering for a long time, it was likely moved there by landslides; if it is relatively fresh, it probably migrated from the asteroid's interior.
So far, Hayabusa2 has not detected water on or near Ryugu's surface. But its infrared spectrometer has found signs of hydroxide-bearing minerals that suggest water once existed either on the parent body or on the asteroid, says Mutsumi Komatsu, a planetary materials scientist at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Hayama, Japan. The asteroid's high porosity also suggests it once harbored significant amounts of water or ice and other volatile compounds that later escaped, Watanabe says. Asteroids such as Ryugu are rich in carbon as well, and they may have been responsible for bringing both water and carbon, life's key building block, to a rocky Earth early in its history. (Comets, by contrast, are just 3% to 5% carbon.)
Support for that theory, known as the late heavy bombardment, comes from another asteroid sample return mission now in progress. Early last month, NASA's OSIRISREx reached asteroid Bennu, which is shaped like a spinning top as well and, the U.S. space agency has reported, has water trapped in the soil. "We're lucky to be able to conduct comparative studies of these two asteroid brothers," Watanabe says.
Geologist Stephen Mojzsis of the University of Colorado in Boulder is not convinced such asteroids will prove to be the source of Earth's water; there are other theories, he says, including the possibility that a giant Jupiter-like gaseous planet migrated from the outer to the inner solar system, bringing water and other molecules with it around the time Earth was formed. Still, findings on Ryugu's shape and composition "scientifically, could be very important," he says.
Some new details come from up-close looks at the asteroid's surface. On 21 September, Hayabusa2 dropped a pair of rovers the size of a birthday cake, named Minerva-II1A and -II1B, on Ryugu's northern hemisphere. Taking advantage of its low gravity to hop autonomously, they take pictures that have revealed "microscopic features of the surface," Tsuda says. And on 5 October, Hayabusa2 released a rover developed by the German and French space agencies that analyzed soil samples in situ and returned additional pictures.
The ultimate objective, to bring asteroid samples back to Earth, will allow lab studies that can reveal much more about the asteroid's age and content. ISAS engineers programmed the craft to perform autonomous landings, anticipating safe touchdown zones at least 100 meters in diameter. Instead, the biggest safe area within the first landing zone turned out to be just 12 meters wide.
That will complicate what was already a nail-biting operation. Prior to each landing, Hayabusa2 planned to drop a small sphere sheathed in a highly reflective material to be used as a target, to ensure the craft is moving in sync with the asteroid's rotation. Gravity then pulls the craft down gently until a collection horn extending from its underside makes contact with the asteroid; after a bulletlike projectile is fired into the surface, soil and rock fragments hopefully ricochet into a catcher within the horn. For safety, the craft has to steer clear of rocks larger than 70 centimeters.
During a rehearsal in late October, Hayabusa2 released a target marker above the 12-meter safe circle; unfortunately, it came to rest more than 10 meters outside the zone. But it is just 2.9 meters away from the edge of a second possible landing site that's 6 meters in diameter. Engineers now plan to have the craft first hover above the target marker and then move laterally to be above the center of one of the two sites. Because the navigation camera points straight down, the target marker will be outside the camera's field of view as Hayabusa2 descends, leaving the craft to navigate on its own.
"We are now in the process of selecting which landing site" to aim for, says Fuyuto Terui, who is in charge of mission guidance, navigation, and control. Aiming at the smaller zone means Hayabusa2 can keep the target marker in sight until the craft is close to the surface; the bigger zone gives more leeway for error, but the craft will lose its view of the marker earlier in the descent.
Assuming the craft survives the first landing, plans call for Hayabusa2 to blast a 2-meter-deep crater into Ryugu's surface at another site a few months later, by hitting it with a 2-kilogram, copper projectile. This is expected to expose subsurface material for observations by the craft's cameras and sensors; the spacecraft may collect some material from the crater as well, using the same horn device. There could be a third touchdown, elsewhere on the asteroid. If all goes well, Hayabusa2 will make it back to Earth with its treasures in 2020.