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Asteroid photos 'show no sign of smooth area for spacecraft landing'

December 12, 2018, Tokyo, Japan - Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa2 project manager Yuichi Tsuda speaks updated situation on Hayabusa2's mission to probe the asteroid Ryugu at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo on Wednesday, December 12, 2018. Hayabusa2 sent small robotic rovers on Ryugu to find good surface for landing in September but they postponed landing of spacecraft to find better place for touch down point on Ryugu. (Photo by Yoshio Tsunoda/AFLO)

By Maria Yamaguchi, Associated Press

More than 200 photos taken by two small rovers on an asteroid show no signs of a smooth area for the touchdown of a spacecraft early next year, Japan's space agency said.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said the two solar-powered rovers have become inactive and are probably in the shade but are still responding to signals after three months, exceeding their projected life of several days.

The Minerva II-1 rovers, which resemble circular cookie tins, were dropped by the unmanned Hayabusa2 spacecraft on to asteroid Ryugu, about 170 million miles from Earth, in September to collect data and surface information.

Many of the photos show a rocky surface on the asteroid, presenting challenges for Hayabusa2's planned touchdown, which has already been postponed from late October after initial images showed the surface was rockier than expected.

The JAXA said it has narrowed down potential landing spots and still plans to attempt the touchdown to collect samples.

Scientists are analysing data sent by the rovers to finalise the plans, including whether to have an additional touchdown rehearsal for the spacecraft, senior project member Takashi Kubota said.

One of the two rovers is believed to have travelled about 300 metres by hopping on the asteroid, where gravity is too weak for wheeled vehicles, and has sent more than 200 photos and other data to the spacecraft, which then relayed it to Earth, Mr Kubota said.

The other rover took about 40 photos and stopped moving after about 10 days, he said. The lower-than-expected surface temperature of the asteroid may have helped slow the rovers' deterioration.

Mr Kubota said the data collected so far shows similarities, including the shape and surface, with Bennu, an asteroid being investigated by Nasa with its spacecraft Osiris-Rex. The initial findings show the asteroids are more studded with boulders than initially thought.

Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and may help explain how Earth evolved.

"We are extremely interested and looking forward to further analysis," Mr Kubota said. "We hope to find anything that may help explain the origin of space and its evolution."

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