Japanese scientists are gearing up to shoot an asteroid with a bullet later this week because, well, why not?
It’s all part of the final phase of the five-year Hayabusa2 mission conducted by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to snag samples from Ryugu asteroid located some 380,000 kilometers (236,000 miles) away and return them to Earth for analysis.
Hayabusa2 has been hovering over the 900-meter-wide (3,000-foot) asteroid since last June, varying its altitude with ion thrusters to counter the space rock’s gravitational attraction, while Ryugu rotates underneath it every 7.5 hours.
Researchers were initially hoping to touchdown last month but were delayed after discovering the surface was much rougher than previously thought, Nature reported at the time. While the team believed the surface of the asteroid would be made of a “powdery fine regolith”, it actually consisted of gravel measuring 1 centimeter or larger. The scientists decided to perform further testing in order to ensure the probe would be able to land safely and efficiently collect materials. To do so, they returned to their home planet laboratory and created an artificial asteroid similar in strength, density, and composition.
A projector then injected identical metal bullets into the surface of the asteroid in order to release and collect material samples, according to a statement released by the space organization. In the ground test, even large rocks were crushed by the metal bullet, confirming that material could in fact be dispersed and gathered by Hayabusa2 probes.
It's the final test before tomorrow’s test, and researchers say they are excited to finally see years of hard work pay off.
“This morning, the touchdown operation began! Today, we are preparing for the spacecraft to descend, which is an operation involving just a few people. The descent begins tomorrow!” tweeted JAXA.
Hayabusa2 arrival is scheduled for around 8am Japan Standard Time and you can watch the whole thing live here.