On Friday, September 21, rovers called MINERVA-II A and B began their descent from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s craft Hayabusa 2 towards its destination – an asteroid called Ryugu, about 300 million kilometres from Earth.
Hayabusa 2 was launched in December 2014, and has been orbiting the asteroid since June 27 this year.
Today, the next part of its mission began. The craft began a descent towards Ryugu, moving at about 10 centimetres per minute from a start point of 1.5 kilometres up. When ready, it will deploy two small robots onto the surface.
Once landed, the Minervas will explore the asteroid, literally hopping from place to place. So weak is the gravity on Ryugu that the robots will spend about 15 minutes in the air each time they launch.
Over the coming months, a third rover, MINERVA-112, and a larger lander called MASCOT, will also be deployed.
The landers, and Hayabusa 2, will gather samples from the asteroid. The craft will eventually return them to Earth, landing at the close of 2020.
During its descent, the craft beamed images of the final stages of its journey back to Japanese mission control, which in turn broadcast them in real time.