Hayabusa-2 Mission: MASCOT Lander Begins Its Descent Toward Asteroid Ryugu — Here’s Where To Watch It Live

Japan’s Hayabusa-2 mission is about to reach yet another milestone in its historic endeavor to study — and retrieve a sample from — the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. After Hayabusa-2 deployed two MINERVA-II1 rovers to the surface of the 3,000-foot space rock on September 21, as reported by the Inquisitr, it’s now time for a third spacecraft to make its way down toward Ryugu.

According to the landing schedule of the Hayabusa-2 mission, detailed in a previous Inquisitr article, next in line to drop down to the surface of the carbon-rich asteroid is a German-French lander known as the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT, for short).

Built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in partnership with French space agency CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales), the MASCOT lander will touch down on asteroid Ryugu later tonight.

“We’re going down to Ryugu!” MASCOT’s Twitter account posted a few hours ago.

Ready For Landing

The tiny spacecraft — which is essentially a small box measuring just 11.8 by 11.8 by 7.8 inches (30 by 30 by 20 centimeters) and weighing only 22 pounds (10 kilograms) — will be deployed in a specifically chosen landing site dubbed MA-9, found in the asteroid’s southern hemisphere.

“This location was selected based on criteria that ensured no overlap between the landing sites for the touchdown of Hayabusa-2, MINERVA-II1, and MASCOT, the time to be able to communicate with Hayabusa-2, the duration of sunlight exposure, and expectation of scientifically meaningful exploration,” the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) explained today in a mission update.

With less than 20 hours left until the landing, MASCOT is busy preparing for the big event and will soon be separating from the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, the Japanese mission’s team tweeted earlier today.

The separation is scheduled to occur at 10:58 p.m. EDT on October 2, the DLR announced yesterday.

In fact, the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft carrying the MASCOT lander has already begun to descend toward the asteroid’s surface. At 8.30 a.m. EDT, Hayabusa-2 was 3.7 miles (six kilometers) from Ryugu and even snapped a photo of the space rock from above.

“Hayabusa-2 has slowed its descent and is now approaching Ryugu at about 0.1 m/s [0.22 mph]. Altitude is about 4,500 meters [92.7 miles] and we are approaching more slowly than ever before,” the Hayabusa-2 team wrote on Twitter in a 9.45 a.m. EDT update.

According to Tra-Mi Ho — MASCOT project manager at the DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen, Germany — the Japanese space probe will descend to less than 200 feet (60 meters) from the asteroid’s surface in the next few hours.

“Just before the landing, Hayabusa-2 will go into a freefall phase, at the end of which — after just two minutes and 20 seconds — MASCOT will be separated,” said Ho.

Watch MASCOT Land On Asteroid Ryugu

Once the lander is deployed, it will literally tumble down onto the asteroid and will rely on Ryugu’s gravity to gently pull it toward the surface at a very low velocity seven times slower than normal walking speed.

The lander is expected to touch down on the asteroid within 10 minutes after the separation is completed. Live coverage of the landing will be available on YouTube at the link below, courtesy of the DLR.

“From the first moment of contact with the surface, this will be a journey into the unknown,” stated DLR officials, noting that “MASCOT could come to rest almost anywhere within a radius of about 200 meters [656 feet] from the point of touchdown.”

The lander will initially bounce several times before coming to rest and power up to begin its scientific operations. Those few moments after MASCOT’s first touch down on Ryugu are vital for the success of its mission, notes Space.

“A smooth descent is crucial, otherwise MASCOT will bounce back up from the asteroid like a rubber ball due to the low gravitational pull, and be lost in space,” Ho said in the same statement.

Another danger is that the lander might get stuck in a crevice and become unable to reorient itself, she pointed out.

Just like the smaller MINERVA-II1 rovers, MASCOT also relies on a hopping mechanism to move around and correct its altitude, adjusting its orientation so that its antenna is directed upwards, explained JAXA.

Mission Duration: Approximately 16 Hours

After landing on Ryugu, MASCOT will be operational for about 16 hours, or until its built-in lithium battery runs out. This means that the lander will only have a short time to study the asteroid and to measure its surface temperature and magnetic field — if Ryugu has one — with its MARA thermal radiometer and its MasMag magnetometer, respectively.

MASCOT is also is equipped with an infrared spectroscopic microscope (MircOmega) “to investigate the composition and characteristics of the minerals on the surface of Ryugu,” note JAXA officials, and will be taking photos of the landing site with a wide-angle camera (MASCAM) mounted on its side.

Next up for the Hayabusa-2 mission is the landing of the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft itself, which will touch down near Ryugu’s equator in late October.

Hayabusa-2 is Japan’s second asteroid sampling mission — after the original Hayabusa spacecraft snagged a sample from asteroid Itokawa in 2005 — and is poised to become the world’s first sample recovery mission from a carbon-rich, or C-type, space rock, the Inquisitr previously reported.

The video below offers a play-by-play of the entire mission, which will culminate with the recovery of rock and soil samples from asteroid Ryugu in late 2019. The mission is scheduled to return the asteroid samples to Earth in 2020.

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