European MASCOT spacecraft successfully lands on asteroid Ryugu

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Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe and the German-French MASCOT lander have teamed up to send back amazing views of an asteroid that’s more than 180 million miles from Earth, including a snapshot of the lander falling toward the asteroid and an on-the-ground view of its rocky terrain.

Scientists shared the images today at the International Astronautical Congress in Germany, during a recap of MASCOT’s successful 17-hour survey of the asteroid Ryugu. Hayabusa 2, which has been hovering above the half-mile-wide asteroid for weeks, dropped the foot-wide, boxy lander onto the surface on Wednesday.

MASCOT stands for “Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout.” The robotic scout conducted a scientific sweep with its four instruments — a camera, a radiometer, a magnetometer and an infrared spectrometer —  and used its robotic swing arm as necessary to hop around the surface. It operated for three asteroid days and two asteroid nights, with each full day-night cycle lasting about seven hours and 36 minutes.

“With MASCOT, it has been possible to, for the first time, explore the surface of an asteroid directly on site so extensively,” Hansjörg Dittus, executive board member for space research and technology at Germany’s DLR space agency, said in a news release.

MASCOT uploaded a treasure trove of imagery and data to Hayabusa 2 for storage before its batteries ran out, and the Japanese probe has been relaying the pictures and readings back to Earth.

“The evaluation of the valuable data has just begun,” said MASCOT project manager Tra-Mi Ho, a researcher at the DLR Institute of Space Systems. “We will learn a lot about the past of the solar system and the importance of near-Earth asteroids like Ryugu.”

MASCOT’s mission came two weeks after Hayabusa 2 deployed two mini-rovers to Ryugu’s surface for an initial round of reconnaissance. In the coming months, Hayabusa 2 will descend to the asteroid and blast bits of rock from the surface for collection. It also has another mini-rover to release.

The probe is scheduled to start the return journey to Earth next year and drop off its samples during a flyby in late 2020.

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