Over the weekend, a pair of robots, each about the size of a frying pan, tumbled out of a spacecraft and landed on the surface of another world.
The robots are part of a Japanese mission to visit an asteroid, collect some of its rocky material, and then return it to Earth. In late 2014, Japan launched the Hayabusa2 spacecraft bound for Ryugu, a small asteroid that measures slightly more than half a mile and orbits near Earth. The spacecraft caught up with Ryugu in June after a three-year chase. Then, last week, it cozied up to the asteroid, coming within several hundred feet of its rocky surface, and dropped the two bots.
Their successful deployment is a very impressive achievement. It’s not easy to land something on such a fast-moving, faraway object; a similar attempt on a comet in 2014 ended with a robot becoming permanently wedged in a dark crevice. But perhaps the most striking part of the maneuver is in the photographs of the landing.
The two Japanese robots have captured Ryugu in incredible detail. The images reveal a richly textured surface, with rocks of all sizes jutting out into the darkness of space:
From this vantage point, Ryugu doesn’t look like a hazy space rock floating hundreds of millions of miles away. It looks comfortingly familiar, like a rocky outcrop you might stumble across while hiking on Earth.