The first-ever close-up photo of asteroid Ryugu is finally here and it shows an exciting new view of what lurks on the surface of the 3,000-foot-wide (900 meters) space rock.
Unveiled last week by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the snapshot was captured by the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft from a distance of less than four miles of Ryugu and reveals the asteroid's surface is completely dotted with boulders, reports Space.com.
According to Sci News, this is the first time that scientists have observed such a feature on the surface of an asteroid.
"We see that the entire surface of Ryugu is strewn with large boulders — we have not yet seen this on an asteroid," Dr. Ralf Jaumann, a planetary scientist at the German Aerospace Center, said in a statement.
Choosing A Landing Spot
Jaumann is the principal investigator for the German-French MASCOT lander aboard the Japanese spacecraft, set to deploy in October and touch down on Ryugu to explore the asteroid's surface in even greater detail and snatch a sample for further study.
In early June, the MASCOT lander radioed home for the first time this year, as reported by the Inquisitr, and is now patiently waiting in Ryugu's orbit for researchers to choose its landing site.
This close-up image of the asteroid — named "Dragon Palace" in Japanese, after an undersea castle from an ancient folk tale — will help the team make a more informed decision on where to deploy the lander.
"This picture will provide important information as we choose the landing site," JAXA officials stated in the photo release.As the Inquisitr previously reported, the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft arrived at Ryugu on June 27, after traveling for 3.5 years through space to reach its target. Since then, the orbiter has been keeping tabs on the asteroid from a distance of 12 miles (20 kilometers).
Recently, however, Hayabusa-2 performed a suite of maneuvers that allowed it to briefly descend toward the surface of Ryugu, announced the Japanese space agency.
Buzzing Ryugu From Just 4 Miles Away
"In the week of July 16, operations were begun to lower this hovering altitude, eventually bringing the spacecraft to less than 6 kilometers [3.7 miles] from the asteroid surface," showed the JAXA report.
Hayabusa-2 started climbing down toward Ryugu on July 17 and reached its lowest altitude on July 20, the day the close-up photo was taken by the orbiter's ONC-T (Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic) instrument.
After hovering at the site for one day, the orbiter retraced its steps and returned to its original observation position on July 25.
Staring Into Ryugu's Crater
Aside from the large number of boulders spotted on the asteroid's surface, the image also showcases Ryugu's largest crater.
"The largest crater on the surface of Ryugu is situated near the center of the image and you can see that it has a shape like a 'mortar,'" JAXA noted.
For now, the asteroid still remains largely a mystery, but scientists are eager to learn more about the diamond-shaped space rock as Hayabusa-2 operations progress. Ryugu is located about 180 million miles (300 million kilometers) away from our planet, between the orbits of Earth and Mars.