Space & Innovation

Asteroid-Bound Spacecraft Snaps Stunning Earth Photos

One year to the day after lifting off, the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa 2 paid its home planet a quick visit for a speed-boost -- taking some photos before continuing its journey.

One year to the day after lifting off, the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa 2 paid its home planet a quick visit for a speed-boost. During its closest approach on Dec. 3, the asteroid-seeking spacecraft took several stunning pictures of Earth.

PHOTOS: Distant Earth: A History of ‘Pale Blue Dots'

The spacecraft snapped several images using its wide-angle ONC-W2 camera. It's roughly nine hours between the time of the first image and the time of the last image above. Hayabusa 2 did execute its flyby maneuver, but it will take a few days before controllers know if it is moving in the right direction.

Its ultimate goal is to reach the asteroid Ryugu in 2018 and literally scoop out some secrets of the early solar system. Hayabusa 2 will deploy several landers (some stationary, some more bouncy) and then will swoop in itself to grab a sample off the surface. It will then return that sample to Earth in 2020.

Earth and the moon captured from 1.9 million miles away on Nov. 26. | JAXA

The pictures flowing from Hayabusa 2 started coming again in late November, when the spacecraft captured the neat photo above showing the Earth and the moon in a single frame. This is a point of view that has only occurred a handful of times in spaceflight history, such as in pictures from the Galileo and Juno spacecraft during their closest approaches to Earth.

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Hayabusa 2 made the close encounter to get a speed boost for its journey to the asteroid. It's a common technique used by spacecraft to save on fuel and weight. Perhaps the most famous example of this was the two Voyager spacecraft, who took advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in one go.

The spacecraft is a follow-on from the Hayabusa mission, which returned to Earth in 2010 with samples of asteroid Itokawa. Ryugu, however, is expected to have more "hydrated" minerals on its surface than Itokawa. So visiting the asteroid could add to the picture of how water was born and spread in our solar system.

Artist's impression of Hayabusa 2 taking a sample off of asteroid Ryugu. | JAXA

Hayabusa 2 isn't the only spacecraft out there gathering information about our solar system's origins. The European Rosetta mission is still at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko to see how the comet changes as its whizzes out from its closest approach to the sun. Among the mission's major findings was discovering the type of water found on the comet differs from the water on our own planet.

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NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is speeding away from Pluto right now with a treasure trove of images it slowly is sending back to Earth. It's possible, but not guaranteed, that it could fly past and study an icy Kuiper Belt object far out in the solar system. Like comets and asteroids, these objects are small and likely look like how the solar system used to early in its ancient history.

We also can't forget the number of telescopes looking at exoplanets and trying to make comparisons to our own solar system. The Kepler spacecraft has found thousands of candidates so far and is still going strong despite a major mechanical failure that forced a change in its mission. Just recently, more than 200 new candidates were announced in a peer-reviewed study.

Earth gets bigger in the window during these successive images taken by the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft during its close approach.

'Selfies' are all the rage these days. Every smartphone is attached with a camera and to the Internet, so it was inevitable that our vain species would take full advantage of the technology, snapping endless photos of cats and, of course, ourselves. Selfies -- or 'self portraits' to the uninitiated -- have become such a cultural phenomenon that Oxford University Press has declared 'Selfies' their word of the year. This may sound asinine, but Merriam-Webster Dictionary balanced it out

and declared 'Science' their word of 2013

. In the spirit of fairness, I've combined the two words of the year and applied them to robots. Yes, robots. Robots that explore space, doing science. And just in case you didn't know, robots can be pretty vain too, taking snapshots of their junk for the whole Internet to see. To narrow the field down a bit, I've only selected robots that have photographed parts of their own structure, or attached components. I've also allowed the occasional robotic camera that was deployed for the sole purpose of taking a selfie

(nice effort, IKAROS).

The first robot that likely comes to mind is the undisputed

King of Selfies

, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. The car-sized rover impressed the world with its selfie prowess when mission scientists released a stunning high-resolution mosaic of the rover in November 2012, only a couple of months after it landed inside Gale Crater. Curiosity achieved the feat by holding its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) at (robotic) arm's length, taking a truly authentic "selfie." The world applauded this effort.

PHOTOS: Mars Through Curiosity's Powerful MAHLI Camera

But Curiosity certainly wasn't the first robot on Mars to snap its own picture, and it won't be the last. Although the Viking landers that touched down on the Red Planet in 1976 didn't have robotic arm-mounted cameras capable of taking a "true" selfie, they did their best.

This view

from Viking 2 was snapped on Nov. 2, 1976, showing a part of the lander's deck, the American flag, the bottom of the robot's high-gain antenna and a boulder-littered Utopia Planitia, the largest identified impact crater on Mars.

Stunning.

PHOTOS: Alien Robots That Left Their Mark on Mars

Staying on Mars, some amazing panoramic shots and top-down self portraits have been attained by NASA's epic twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. As you've probably guessed, commanding a robot on another planet to take self portraits isn't for fun (even though the outcome

is

a lot of fun), it actually serves a purpose. In the case of Viking and Curiosity, engineers on Earth can study the photos to see the condition of instruments on the robots' 'decks.'

As shown here

, for solar powered rover Spirit, using its mast-mounted panoramic camera was very useful for capturing amazing 360 degree views of the surrounding terrain. It was also great for keeping track of the build-up of Martian dust on its panels. In this photo taken in 2005, Spirit's solar array shines in the sun, having collected only a very thin layer of dust two years after it landed.

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Spirit's twin rover Opportunity soldiers on to this day, exploring the Martian surface after nearly a decade since landing. Jan. 25, 2014, is its 10 year Mars "birthday" (mark your calendars!). Currently exploring the edge of Endeavour Crater, helping to piece together clues of Mars' evolution (complementing the science being done by Curiosity), Opportunity is no stranger to taking its own photo. As Spirit and Opportunity were designed to the same specifications, Opportunity can also take 360 degree views and monitor dust build-up on its solar panels.

Seen here

in 2011, its once shiny solar array is blanketed with a camouflaging coat of dust.

NEWS: Opportunity Finds More Hints of Mars Habitability

Mars again?

Really?

No, robotic Mars explorers aren't especially fond of sefies, it's just that NASA has sent a lot of Mars surface missions in the past few years. Seen here in 2008, NASA's Mars arctic lander Phoenix took its own photo using a mast-mounted panoramic camera in a similar style to Spirit and Opportunity. It seems that the first rule of robotic selfies is: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

PHOTOS: Phoenix Mars Lander's First Images

Now for something a little different. In 2007, the European comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta made close approach with Mars, coming within 1,000 miles of the surface, using the planet for a fuel-saving gravity assist. The boost in speed is allowing Rosetta to catch up with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko -- an encounter that is planned for 2014. But during the flyby, the spacecraft managed to snap this iconic photo of Mars from space. What makes

this view

so special is that Rosetta also caught its own solar array in the shot.

ANALYSIS: Advice to Rosetta: Maybe She's Just Not That Into You

Leaving Mars, we now head to Venus where, in 1982, the Soviet Venera 13 lander managed to survive the hellish conditions and transmit data for two hours. In that time it also returned some color photos of the Venusian surface. In those photos, the hardy lander was able to capture some of its jagged landing gear at the bottom of the shot. It may not be perfect, but while sitting in a pressure-cooker with a limited amount of time to return valuable data, it's a superb effort.

ANALYSIS: When the Veneras Challenged Venus' Hellish Atmosphere

In a video released by the Chinese Space Agency of the Chang'e 2 lunar orbiter in 2010, the view shortly after launch was captured by a camera overseeing the deployment of the mission's solar panels.

Courtesy of the Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla

, the video in its entirety

can be watched on Youtube

.

Whoa! What's that huge UFO that photobombs the shot?

Oh, that's Earth.

ANALYSIS: Chinese Probe Buzzes Asteroid Toutatis

The Japanese Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission got a little creative with this selfie effort. In 2005, as it approached near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, with the sun at its back the mission snapped its shadow falling on the sunlit asteroid surface.

Thanks to

@AsteroidEnergy

for leading me to Hayabusa!

VIDEO: NASA Aircraft Videos Hayabusa Re-Entry

In 2010, the Japanese space agency JAXA launched a pioneering mission. Using only the sun's energy for propulsion, the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun, or IKAROS, probe set sail through interplanetary space for a January 2011 rendezvous with the planet Venus. After the solar sail was launched, two miniature wireless cameras were ejected by IKAROS as it deployed in Earth orbit,

returning this admirable "hands free" self portrait

. Then, as IKAROS reached its destination eight months later, it took a snapshot of a crescent Venus (inset). (Thank you

Emily Lakdawalla

for reminding me about these stunning IKAROS photos!)

Special thanks to all my Twitter buddies who engaged in Wednesday evening's conversation about robot selfies!

Can you think of more space mission "selfies"? Feel free to share them in the comments below.