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The asteroid Ryugu is a weird, fragile thing

26 Aug 2019, 13:00 UTC
The asteroid Ryugu is a weird, fragile thing
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Some asteroids, it turns out, are fragile things.

Ryugu is a tiny one, as asteroids go, just barely over a kilometer across its equator (1004 ±2 meters). It's not round, but neither is it irregular; it's shaped like a diamond, or more accurately like two squat comes attached at their bases. That's not a coincidence! It has such low gravity — I'd weigh about 1/30th of an ounce on its surface — that it doesn’t hold on to its rocks very tightly. It spins once every 7.63262 hours (yes, it's known that accurately!), so there's a slight centrifugal force outwards at the equator. That's "downhill," so rocks tend to slide down in that direction, building it up and creating the asteroid's odd-looking overall shape.

On June 27, 2018, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 took up residence near Ryugu, and began a campaign of not just observing it, but invading it. It dropped three landers to the surface. Two were mostly technology testers to see how to move around on the surface of an asteroid where gravity is whisper-light. The other, MASCOT (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout), had scientific equipment on it to get extremely up-close and personal data on the surface.


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