Ryugu, the near-Earth asteroid targeted by Japan’s historic Hayabusa-2 mission, just got a whole lot more interesting.
Dubbed the “Dragon Palace” asteroid after a Japanese folk tale, as the Inquisitr previously reported, Ryugu has received a lot of attention in the media, especially since the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft finally caught up with it in late June, after a 3.5-year journey that took it 180 million miles away from home.
As the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is getting ready to land all sorts of gear on the 3,000-foot-wide space rock come September 20, new photos of the asteroid emerge, revealing its surprising complexity.
A little more than a month after the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft snagged the first-ever close-up of Ryugu — unveiling unique features not seen in any space rock before, as reported by the Inquisitr at the time — a new image of the diamond-shaped asteroid is making headlines.
Released by JAXA in early August, the image captures a more detailed view of Ryugu’s shape, showing that the asteroid looks less like a diamond and more like a spinning top.
The similarity is so striking that Ryugu almost bears a strange resemblance to the “Death Star,” the infamous deep-space battle station made popular by the Star Wars franchise.
In fact, the two seem to have at least one physical feature in common, noticed Space.
Captured by the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft’s laser altimeter (LIDAR) after a month of measurements, this latest view of Ryugu shows that the asteroid has a large divot right at the top.
This brings to mind the small circular depression on the exterior of the “Death Star” — you know, the place from where the lasers shoot out to take down entire planets.
But the real menace about Ryugu is that the asteroid’s surface is strewn with large boulders, which makes landing operations particularly difficult.
A more recent image unveiled yesterday by the Japanese space station shows that the space rock is dotted by hundreds of rock masses (marked in green in the photo below) ranging between 26 feet and 32 feet in diameter.
“It turned out that there are more rock masses on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu than expected,” JAXA officials said in a statement.
Researchers are currently studying these impressive rock masses, which stand testament to Ryugu’s tumultuous past, in an effort to learn more about how the asteroid was formed.
“In general, boulders provide valuable evidence about the kinds of collision that an asteroid has been subjected to over its lifetime. The number, shape and variation of these boulders will therefore be examined in detail and, when compared with other observational data, allow the formation of asteroid Ryugu to be revealed,” notes the Japanese space agency.
Additional imaging of the space rock, this time with the Thermal Infrared Imager (TIR) onboard the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, confirmed Ryugu’s unconventional features, while also providing a thermal view of the asteroid.
These latest observations, taken from a distance of 12 miles above Ryugu and made public earlier today, reveal a slight temperature difference between the asteroid’s northern and southern hemispheres — with the hottest areas reaching 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) and the coldest regions sitting “at room temperature.”
“This lets us confirm that the overall shape of the asteroid is well understood, and also the characteristic topography such as craters and large boulders that show up as a difference in temperature,” said JAXA.
Despite Ryugu’s challenging terrain, JAXA has managed to find a few decent landing spots for the three rovers and the MASCOT lander accompanying the Hayabusa-2 mission, as well as for the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft itself, the Inquisitr reported in late August.
The first to touch down on the carbon-rich asteroid will be the MINERVA-II rovers, scheduled to land on September 20 and 21. The wheeless robots will be followed by the MASCOT lander on October 3, while the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft will make its first descent to the asteroid’s surface in late October.
The spacecraft is slated to perform a few touch-and-go landings on Ryugu and collect soil and rock samples that are to be sent back to Earth for analysis.
Launched in 2014, Hayabusa-2 is poised to become the world’s first sample return mission from a carbonaceous, or C-type, asteroid. That is, if NASA doesn’t beat Japan to the punch, as recently reported by the Inquisitr. The U.S. space agency has set its sights on another C-type asteroid, the smaller and closer Bennu, which is currently being chased by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.