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Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft grabs epic close-up just 30 feet above asteroid

The Japanese asteroid-hunter had another photo opportunity when it dropped a target marker on asteroid Ryugu.

The shadow of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu.

It took a 180-million-mile trip to deliver this image. Inside the red circle is the shadow of the tiny target marker Hayabusa2 will use to scoop up a sample of the asteroid.

JAXA

The Japanese space agency, JAXA, has been circling the asteroid Ryugu with its spacecraft Hayabusa2 for almost a year now and the agency has even shot a cannonball at the space rock.

That shot kicked up debris that Hayabusa2 collected in February but the agency wanted to go again -- and collect debris from further inside Ryugu.

On May 30, Jaxa performed a daring maneuver that brought its spacecraft within 9 meters (approximately 30 feet) of Ryugu to drop a target marker on its surface. The success of the mission was documented by the spacecraft's official Twitter account (because it's 2019), but on June 5, the agency released a photo that is absolutely wild.

Let's pause for a second and consider this:

The above image comes from a 600-kilogram, refrigerator-sized robot traveling at about 15 miles per second, around 170 million miles from Earth. It shows the shadow of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft and just below that shadow a tiny, spherical shadow. That tiny shadow is the target marker being released onto the asteroid. Crazy, huh?

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The image was captured by CAM-H, one of Hayabusa2's suite of instruments that has previously captured touchdown on Ryugu. The small monitor camera was built and installed on the spacecraft thanks to public donations.

We've seen some fantastic images from the surface of Ryugu during Hayabusa2's mission. Two tiny rovers were deployed on the asteroid's surface in 2018, providing some incredible close-ups. Hayabusa2 will move to sample the asteroid for a second time later this year, before returning to Earth with samples in December 2020.