TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese spacecraft has dropped a German-French observation device to land on an asteroid as part of a research effort that could find clues to the origin of the solar system.
The Japan Space Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said Wednesday that the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout, or MASCOT, was released from the unmanned spacecraft Hayabusa2 and headed to the asteroid Ryugu.
The spacecraft went as close as about 50 meters (160 feet) to the asteroid's surface to release the box-shaped lander. Hayabusa2 has been stationed near the asteroid since June after traveling 280 million kilometers (170 million miles) from Earth.
About an hour after the separation, JAXA said it had received signals from MASCOT, an indication of its safe landing.
The lander's deployment follows the successful landing last month of two MINERVA-II1 jumping observation rovers that have transmitted a series of images showing the asteroid's rocky surface.
Hayabusa2 dropped MASCOT on the opposite hemisphere of the jumping rovers so they don't interfere with each other's activity, JAXA said.
The lithium battery-run MASCOT can operate 16 straight hours — while the asteroid revolves twice — to collect and transmit data, including temperature and mineral varieties. The probe bounces only once after its initial touchdown before settling at its final destination.
According to JAXA, MASCOT is carrying an optical navigation wide-angle camera on its side to capture images of its surroundings. A spectroscopic microscope on the bottom is designed to examine minerals on the asteroid's surface. MASCOT will also measure levels of magnetic force and temperature on the asteroid.
It took more than three years for the Hayabusa2 spacecraft to reach the asteroid's vicinity, traveling with the probes. Hayabusa2 will later attempt to briefly land on the asteroid itself to collect samples to send back to researchers on Earth.
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