MASCOT Lander Calls Home From Asteroid Ryugu’s Orbit

Japan Aerospace Exploration AgencyAP Images

For the first time since the Japanese Hayabusa 2 space probe arrived at asteroid Ryugu at the end of June, the German-French MASCOT lander on board the spacecraft has finally radioed home on Friday.

According to the German Aerospace Center (DLR), its engineers at the MASCOT Control Center in Cologne received the asteroid lander’s signal on July 6 at 01:15 UTC (9.15 p.m. EDT on July 5).

This is the first radio contact that the MASCOT team has had with the 22-pound lander since the beginning of the year.

As the Inquisitr recently reported, the MASCOT lander hitched a ride on Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft and reached Ryugu on June 27, after three and a half years of flying through space.

The spacecraft settled into an observational point above surface of the 3,000-foot-wide (900 meters) asteroid — which lies about 180 million miles (300 million kilometers) away from our planet, between Earth and Mars — and will spend the next couple of months selecting the optimum landing site to deploy MASCOT.

Built by the DLR in partnership with the French space agency (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales; CNES), the MASCOT lander stands for Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout and has been tasked with exploring the asteroid’s surface. The lander is scheduled to be deployed in October and will gather as much data as possible on the Ryugu asteroid.

Equipped with four science instruments, the MASCOT lander is essentially a small box, measuring about 12 inches (30 centimeters) in both length and width.

The lander is designed to hop around on the space rock in “pre-programmed ‘jumps’ of up to 70 meters [230 feet] in order to perform measurements at various points on the asteroid surface,” notes the DLR.

But until that can happen, the MASCOT team still needs to iron out the details of the asteroid landing.

Getting To Know Ryugu

With the Hayabusa 2 space probe and the MASCOT lander currently “parked” some 12 miles (20 kilometers) above the asteroid, the scientists will be able to learn more about Ryugu and its surface conditions.

This will help refine the landing procedures for MASCOT, which so far have been loosely based on shot-in-the-dark estimates.

“Now begins the period of intensive landing preparations, because we can only intervene to a limited extent during the landing,” says Christian Krause, manager of MASCOT ground operations for the DLR.

The first step is to make sure that MASCOT’s science gear is working properly, notes Dr. Tra-Mi Ho, MASCOT Project Manager at the DLR Institute of Space Systems.

“The instruments and systems will now undergo another health check upon arrival, as they have done each year during the trip to Ryugu,” she explains.

Once everything is confirmed to be in top shape, the team will begin to lay out the specifics of the landing and of MASCOT’s first measurement operation on the surface of Ryugu, slated to last for 16 hours.

During that time, the MASCOT team will only have a limited opportunity to communicate with the lander, with message relay taking more than 30 minutes at a time.

Since the MASCOT lander will be more or less “flying solo” on the big day, ahead-of-schedule detailed preparations are vital, stresses Ho.

“Our goal is to collect as much data as possible during the landing and the measurement phase. To do this, we must prepare the processes as robustly as possible for the inhospitable and unpredictable environment on the asteroid surface.”