‘Member in that movie Armageddon when Bruce Willis landed a spaceship on a freakin’ asteroid? I remember. While that might have seemed like an outlandish and unrealistic plot device at the time, it turns out that such an escapade may indeed be possible - if Bruce Willis is available, of course. That guy stays pretty busy. Die Hard 6, really?
Actually, even without Bruce Willis’ help, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced this week that they have successfully landed rovers on the asteroid Ryugu. 162173 Ryugu is a potentially hazardous near-Earth object (NEO) measuring around 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter. Ryugu orbits the sun every 16 months and passes within a quarter of a lunar distance to Earth as it does, making it an object worthy of our attention.
The groundbreaking mission is part of the agency’s Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample-return mission, the ultimate goal of which is to collect material samples of Ryugu and safely bring them back to Earth for analysis. At least when we're all incinerated by an asteroid impact, we will have known what it was made of.
To accomplish this feat, JAXA has deployed two tiny rovers called MINERVA II which are able to hop and roll around the asteroid’s surface, taking photographs and collecting samples all the way. The rovers have already beamed back a few pictures, and they’re as incredible as you would imagine they are. The images show asteroid 162173 Ryugu to be just the type of barren, inhospitable rock an asteroid should be.
Will we one day have to send Bruce Willis or another similarly steely-eyed hunk on a suicidal mission to land on an asteroid and blow it to bits? Given how much attention the White House is paying to asteroids and the other 15,000 near-Earth objects lately, it’s definitely possible - especially given that some scientists accuse NASA of hiding the truth about these NEOs.
Asteroids have impacted the Earth many times throughout our planet’s history, causing mass extinction events and generally ruining everyone’s day. All of this has happened before and will happen again. When will the next one occur?