The Science of Landing on an Asteroid

Exploiting the resources of the rock-strewn expanse of space between Mars and the outer planets has been the stuff of science fiction for ages. There’s gold in them ‘thar space rocks, or diamonds, or platinum, or something that makes them attractive targets for capitalists and scientists alike. But before actually extracting the riches of the asteroid belt, stuck here as we are at the bottom of a very deep gravity well that’s very expensive to climb out of, we have to answer a few questions. Like, how does one rendezvous with an asteroid? What’s involved with maneuvering near a comparatively tiny celestial body? And most importantly, how exactly does one land on an asteroid and do any useful work?

Back in June, a spacecraft launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) finally caught up to an asteroid named Ryugu after having chased it for the better part of four years. The Hayabusa2 was equipped to answer all those questions and more, and as it settled in close to the asteroid with a small fleet of robotic rovers on board, it was about to make history. Here’s how they managed to not only land on an asteroid, but how the rovers move around on the surface, and how they’ll return samples of the asteroid to Earth for study.

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Hackaday 10th Anniversary: Hacking Your Way To NASA

[Steve] drives spacecraft for a living. As an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he’s guided probes to comets, asteroids, Mars, and Jupiter, figured out what happens when telemetry from these probes starts looking weird, and fills the role of the Space Hippy whenever NASA needs some unofficial PR.

Like most people who are impossibly cool, [Steve]’s career isn’t something he actively pursued since childhood. Rather, it’s something that fell in his lap. With qualifications like building a robotic computer to typewriter interface, a custom in-car navigation system in the late 80s, and a lot of work with an Amiga, we can see where [Steve] got his skills.

The earliest ‘hack’ [Steve] can remember was just that – an ugly, poorly welded sidecar for his bicycle made in his early teens. From there, he graduated to Lasertag landmines, Tesla coils, and building camera rigs, including a little bit of work on Octopussy, and a rig for a Miata. It helps when your dad is a cinematographer, it seems.

In college, [Steve] used his experience with 6502 assembler to create one of the first computerized lighting controllers (pre-DMX). After reading a biography on [Buzz Aldrin], [Steve] realized doing his thesis on orbital rendezvous would at least be interesting, if not an exceptionally good way to get the attention of NASA.

Around this time, [Steve] ran into an engineering firm that was developing, ‘something like Mathematica’ for the Apple II, and knowing 6502 assembly got him in the door. This company was also working to get the GPS constellation up and running, and [Steve]’s thesis on orbital mechanics eventually got him a job at JPL.

There’s several lifetimes worth of hacks and builds [Steve] went over at the end of his talk. The highlights include a C64 navigation system for a VW bug, a water drop high voltage machine, and a video editing system built from a few optical encoders. This experience with hacking and modding has served him well at work, too: when the star sensor for Deep Space 1 failed, [Steve] and his coworkers used the science camera as a stand in navigation aid.

One final note: Yes, I asked [Steve] if he played Kerbal Space Program. He’s heard of it, but hasn’t spent much time in it. He was impressed with it, though, and we’ll get a video of him flying around the Jool system eventually.

Pocket Sized Sattelites for Asteroid Detection


We’ve seen kicksats before, small pocketable single board satellites designed to orbit Earth. At this year’s Maker Faire, the team behind these kicksats has a new plan: using them to determine the orbits of earth-passing asteroids and hopefully not giving us any forewarning of our imminent extinction.

Instead of simply orbiting Earth, the new plan for these kicksats is to deploy them into the path of an oncoming asteroid such as Apophis so the radio transmissions from each satellite can pinpoint where exactly the asteroid is, something Earthbound optical and radio telescopes struggle with.

Despite the small size, the hardware on each kicksat is pretty impressive; each mini satellite has a solar cell on each side, a low-power MSP430 microcontroller with a radio module, and a few sensors. The system is designed so anyone can pick up the telemetry from these satellites with a small Yagi antenna and an RTL SDR TV tuner dongle.

An impressive bit of kit, but if holding a satellite or asteroid in your hand is more your thing, the same team behind the kicksat put up a whole bunch of 3D models of asteroids and space probes. They’re actually quite impressive when they’re printed out.