Move over, Bruce Willis — a pair of robots are the latest to attempt a landing on an asteroid millions of miles from Earth. But unlike Willis, these bots aren’t there to blow it up. No, the bots, each of which weighs 1.1 kilogram (2.4 pounds), is there to study the kilometer-wide space rock.
Whether they’ll succeed, though, is a real nail-biter. We won’t know until Saturday, when the bots go online, whether they survived the landing.
“We are very much hopeful,” said Yuichi Tsuda, a project manager at Japan’s space agency, according to Phys.org. “We don’t have confirmation yet, but we are very, very hopeful.”
In December 2014, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency launched Hayabusa2, a refrigerator-sized spacecraft destined for Ryugu, a lumpy asteroid roughly 289 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth. Hayabusa2 reached Ryugu in June; on Friday, it tossed a pair of small exploratory robots toward the asteroid.
If they land successfully, the robots will use their solar-powered motors to bounce around the asteroid’s surface, remaining airborne for periods as long as 15 minutes thanks to Ryugu’s weak gravity. From a vantage point up to 15 meters (49 feet) above the surface, the bots will record information such as surface temperature and photos of the asteroid, then beam it back to Earth.
The mission could help us better understand how our solar system formed, since Ryugu and asteroids like it haven’t changed much over the past 4.5 billion years.
It could also provide valuable information for future asteroid mining efforts. After all, Ryugu is worth an estimated $95 billion, so there’s a huge financial incentive to figuring out how best to harvest those potential profits.
Hayabusa2 will hang around Ryugu until the end of 2019 to complete several other experiments. By 2021 it will return to Earth with samples in tow — and hopefully new insights into our past and future along with it.
READ MORE: Japan Space Robots to Probe Asteroid 170 Million Miles From Earth [Bloomberg]
For more on asteroid mining: Want to Snag a Job Mining Asteroids Someday? You Can Now Get Your Masters in It.