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Sci-Tech

Hayabusa2 spacecraft cozies up to gemstone-shaped asteroid

A Japanese spacecraft will reach out and touch a gem of an asteroid.

Asteroids come in all shapes and sizes. We've seen a die and a skull and now we can add a gemstone to the list. JAXA, Japan's space agency, posted images of the asteroid Ryugu as seen by its fast-approaching Hayabasu2 spacecraft.

asteroidryugu

Ryugu appears to have a bright spot near the top of this portrait.

JAXA

Hayabusa2 is the sequel to Japan's original Hayabusa asteroid mission, which returned to Earth in 2010 after touching down on an asteroid named Itokawa. The probe successfully gathered sample particles from the asteroid and brought them back to Earth. The current mission will also try to gather and return samples from Ryugu. 

Ryugu, also known as 1999 JU3, is classified as a near-Earth object (NEO) and a potentially hazardous asteroid thanks to its size and an orbital path that could bring it close to Earth.

JAXA's asteroid hunter launched in late 2014 and has since traveled about 2 billion miles (3.2 billion kilometers). It is now sending back our best-ever looks at the distant space object. A photograph from June 24 shows the asteroid's rough surface and diamond-like shape.

JAXA describes the shape as being similar to the mineral flourite, which is known as the "firefly stone" in Japanese. The space agency also suggests it looks a bit like an abacus bead.

The asteroid's angular shape poses some challenges to Hayabasu2's plan to place a lander and three miniature rovers on its surface. "There is a peak in the vicinity of the equator and a number of large craters, which makes the selection of the landing points both interesting and difficult," says JAXA.

Hayabusa2 will hang out at Ryugu for over a year and eventually return to Earth near the end of 2020.