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MASCOT lander
An artist’s conception shows the MASCOT lander sitting on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. (JAXA Illustration)

A robotic probe the size of a shoebox set itself down on the asteroid Ryugu, more than 180 million miles from Earth, and conducted a 17-hour survey of its rocky surroundings.

The foot-wide, German-built lander is called MASCOT, which stands for Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout. It was ejected from Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe from a height of 51 meters (167 feet) and drifted downward to Ryugu at walking speed.

“It could not have gone better,” Tra-Mi Ho, MASCOT project manager at the DLR Institute of Space Systems, said today in a status update. “From the lander’s telemetry, we were able to see that it separated from the mothercraft and made contact with the asteroid surface approximately 20 minutes later.”

MASCOT took a picture of its own shadow on Ryugu’s surface as it descended:

The lander is equipped with a swing arm to move itself around the surface. It had to use the arm to relocate itself and get oriented properly to collect scientific data, mission managers said in a tweet.

MASCOT’s lifetime was limited because it’s powered by onboard lithium batteries. It was expected to have only 16 hours to record observations with its four instruments — a camera, a radiometer, a magnetometer and a French-built infrared spectrometer — and upload the data to Hayabusa 2 before its batteries died.

It turned out that the lander exceeded expectations by operating for more than an hour longer than expected:

Hayabusa 2 will relay the data to Earth over the next few days.

MASCOT’s mission came almost two weeks after Hayabusa 2 deployed two mini-rovers to Ryugu’s surface for an initial round of reconnaissance. In the coming months, Hayabusa 2 will descend to the asteroid and blast bits of rock from the surface for collection. It also has another mini-rover to release.

The probe is scheduled to start the return journey to Earth next year and drop off its samples during a flyby in late 2020.

This is an updated version of a report first published at 9:33 p.m. PT Oct. 3.

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