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Japan's mission to asteroid Ryugu becomes its own fairytale

A Cinderella story for JAXA's asteroid-sampling mission.

This image from Hayabusa 2's navigation camera show Ryugu getting closer.

The asteroid Ryugu has its own Cinderella story. 

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)'s Hayabusa2 spacecraft reached Ryugu in June 2018 ready to survey and eventually sample the space rock. During the course of their surveying, the team had often referred to many of the locations on Ryugu by nicknames, including using Star Wars' Death Star as a crater name.

But the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (which itself needs a new nickname) requires those names to be formally recognized, so they can be referenced when scientists and astronomers discuss the potentially hazardous asteroid.

In December, JAXA got approval via the IAU for their new Ryugu nomenclature based around "names that appear in stories for children". In naming the geological structures of Ryugu, they mostly stuck to the Japanese mythic tale of "Urashima Taro" where Ryugu itself gets its name. 

Urashima Taro tells the story of the titular hero travelling to Ryugu-jo, the Dragon's palace. He ventures to the palace under the ocean and eventually returns with a small box -- just like Hayabusa2 is expected to return to the Earth after sampling Ryugu. Various people and places from the tale feature in Ryugu's new geographical names, such as Otohime, a princess he meets in the castle and Ryujin, the dragon god.

Intriguingly, copyright claims actually prevented the team using names derived from well-known Western fairytales such as Cinderella, Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty. In Cinderella's case, the team reverted to the French spelling to get around the claim, naming one of Ryugu's biggest craters "Cendrillon", whereas Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty were replaced entirely by names from fairytales originating in Russia and the Netherlands. 

Alice's Wonderland also gets a feature, though JAXA notes that name is not confirmed by the IAU's Working Group, but rather the site of one of Hayabusa2's landers. 

A schematic of the asteroid and its new fairytale names is available below:


Since arriving at Ryugu, Hayabusa 2 has had its work cut out for it, exploring the space rock with a combination of robots. In September 2018, it dropped off two tiny hopping robots on Ryugu's surface and then in October, MASCOT was deployed equipped with a camera and various science instruments to measure radio and magnetic signals. A third rover is scheduled to land on Ryugu this year.

Hayabusa 2 will also return samples from the asteroid to Earth in 2020. It is expected the first sampling will take place in February 2019, when Hayabusa 2 sends a sampling horn to the surface to blast up debris for capture. 

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