In breaking news, Japan’s space agency JAXA announced that its second-generation rocket Hayabusa2 landed successfully on a space-voyaging asteroid to collect mineral samples for transport back home. Its continuing year-and-a-half mission is to photograph and collect mineral samples from the tumbling space rock.
Interest in mining metals from near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) is very appealing to governments and corporations worldwide. Small wonder since there are about 20,000 NEAs with the potential to bring new minerals to Earth from space.
But, in addition to useful materials from the platinum group, ferrous metals, rare Earth minerals, and carbon, volatile compounds such as water are also highly prized.
JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) launched Hayabusa2 on December 3, 2014. The flying rock collector reached the near-Earth asteroid 162173 called Ryugu on June 27, 2018.
Then, on September 21, 2018, two small, compact MINERVA-II1 rovers separated from the Hayabusa2 spacecraft and set a new record in space tech by delivering two tiny hopping robotic probes to the asteroid’s surface. Each rover has a diameter of 18cm (just over 7in), height of 7cm (2-3/4in), and weight of about 1.1 kg each (almost 2-1/2lbs).
MINERVAII stands for “Micro Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid, the second generation.” The MINERVA-II1 consists of two hexagonal rovers, Rover-1A and Rover-1B. Both rovers landed on the surface of asteroid Ryugu in good condition and began transmitting images and data.
There are four cameras on Rover-1A and three cameras on Rover-1B. The MINERVA-II1 cameras on Rover-1A can shoot in color.
On October 3, 2018, a larger and heavier rover named MASCOT (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) landed successfully on a region in the southern hemisphere of Ryugu. This lander measures 0.3m x 0.3m x 0.2m (just under 12in x 12in x 8in).
MASCOT is not powered by the sun’s energy but by a lithium primary battery built into the lander which delivers about 16 hours of juice – about two rotations of Ryugu.
This asteroid lander is equipped with an antenna to link it with the OME-E repeater aboard Hayabusa2. It has a wide-angle camera (MASCAM) mounted on the side to capture images of MASCOT’s surroundings.
An infrared spectroscopic microscope (MircOmega) is attached to the bottom surface of MASCOT to investigate the composition and characteristics of the minerals on the surface of Ryugu. A thermal radiometer (MARA) measures the surface temperature and a magnetometer (MasMag) measures magnetic fields.
MASCOT has a hopping mechanism similar to that of MINERVA-II1 but can achieve a single hop, unlike the rovers which hop multiple times.
On December 28, 2018 – the last workday of the year – the Japanese sampler team conducted an important final test before Hayabusa2’s scheduled landing on the asteroid’s surface to collect its rovers and mineral specimens. Hayabusa2 uses a projector mechanism to shoot metal bullets into the asteroid surface and release material, before passively collecting these samples through the sampler horn.
This test confirmed that the spare projector operated normally after it had been stored for a lengthy period of four years.
On February 22, 2019, the probe landed on Ryugu and collected shallow surface samples. Mission managers decided to dig for some deeper rock specimens. This required lifting the probe off the asteroid’s surface so it could blast a crater 10 meters (almost 11 yards) wide.
On April 23, 2019, the spacecraft detonated a box of explosives in space that shot a copper plate into the asteroid.
And now, on Wednesday, September 4, 2019, Hayabusa2 landed safely on the surface of Ryugu at 21:06 ET (01:06 UTC on Thursday). After completing its task, to scoop up the loose soil and rocks from the blast zone, the spacecraft lifted off the asteroid’s surface again.
In December 2019, Hayabusa2 is scheduled to begin its long voyage (5 and a half million miles) back to Earth. The Japanese mineral sampler system is slated to arrive home in December 2020.
As I wrote before about the Japanese accomplishment:
“The achievement here lies in landing a spacecraft on a moving object without destroying the expensive equipment. The average asteroid speed of 15 miles per second.”
The collected mineral samples will be subjected to laboratory analysis, ostensibly to learn more about the formation of the solar system – but probably laying the groundwork for mining operations in space.
In 2010, the Japanese asteroid exploration project was estimated to cost 16.4 billion yen, equivalent to $146 million.