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For the last few months, Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft has been engaged in various acts of interplanetary aggression, shooting the asteroid Ryugu in order to blast free material for a return to Earth. But Hayabusa2's visit has also featured various less violent activities, as its imaging and characterization of Ryugu has given us a new picture of the body, which is thought to act as a time capsule for material that formed at the earliest stages of our Solar System.
As part of these studies, Hayabusa2 dropped off a French-German robot that was meant to hop across the asteroid's surface in order to sample some of its rocks. Despite landing upside-down, the robot eventually hopped into the right orientation, and a paper describing what it found was published in Thursday's edition of Science.
If you're like me, then the image of a small robot hopping across the surface of an asteroid brought something adorable and possibly anthropomorphic to mind. You may get rid of those images immediately. MASCOT, the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout, is a rectangular box. Its ability to hop is provided by an internal weighted device. By rapidly rotating this weight, the robot could generate enough velocity to overcome Ryugu's tiny gravitational field and launch the box to new locations.
This hopping capability turned out to be critical to the mission. After Hyabusa2 dropped MASCOT off 40 meters above the surface of the asteroid, the robot bounced for 17 meters before settling down in an awkward position. An attempt to orient the probe didn't exactly go well: "An up-raising maneuver at this first measurement position left the lander upside down, with most instruments aimed toward the sky." Imaging from that position managed to confirm that Jupiter, Saturn, and the star σ Sagittarii do exist.
So, the appropriate commands were sent, and the box did another hop. This time, it landed in the right orientation to do some observing. In addition to its weighted arm for hopping, MASCOT had a camera, a magnetometer, a radiometer, and infrared spectrometer. These gave it the ability to get some sense of the materials around it and associate their properties with specific rocks.
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