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Here are the first pictures from the rovers Japan just landed on an asteroid 280 million km away

Peter Farquhar

Japan now has two rovers on an asteroid 280 million kilometres from Earth, and they've started sending back the first pictures of life on a very lonely rock.

First, here's a shot the Hayabusa2 spacecraft took back in June of asteroid 162173 Ryugu:

Hayabusa2 began its journey on December 3, 2014, and actually had to travel 3.2 billion kilometres to make the rendezvous. Its mission: to "study the origin and evolution of the solar system as well as materials for life".

This is the first close-up of Ryugu's surface from Hayabusa2, taken from 6km above the asteroid on July 20:

It will now orbit Ryugu for one and a half years. During that time, Hayabusa2 will drop four probes 60 metres to Ryugu's surface.

One dropped this past weekend, and in it were two 18cm diameter MINERVA-II rovers. Here's the view of that moment from one of them - the blur at the top is Hayabusa2:

Here's another pic as the rover approached Ryugu:

Once they hit the surface, the two rovers began moving around in hops created by internal rotations and started using stereo and wide angle camera, and thermometers.

Due to Ryugu's weak gravity, each hop took the rovers 15 metres and 15 minutes to land. Here's a mid-hop image that got mission spokesperson Takashi Kubota emotional:

"From the surface of Ryugu, MINERVA-II1 sent a radio signal to the Earth via Hayabusa2," Kubota said.

"The image taken by MINERVA-II1 during a hop allowed me to relax as a dream of many years came true. I felt awed by what we had achieved in Japan.

"This is just a real charm of deep space exploration."

Who's up next?

Another container will deploy another hopping rover, a German/French co-operative effort called MASCOT.

About 30cm across, it will use LEDs to illuminate and detect dust particles and carries an infrared spectrometer, a magnetometer, a radiometer and a camera.

Once that's under way, attention shifts to the big show. Around autmun next year, Hayabusa2 will fire a 2kg copper "collision device" at Ryugu, attempting to blow a small crater in the surface.

If it works, Hayabusa2 itself can descend to the surface of Ryugu to analyse the underground makeup of the asteroid, and collect some samples to bring home.