Japan's Space Probe Just Bombed Asteroid Ryugu To Collect New Samples

Photograph of the full disk of Ryugu from June 2018. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA); ONC team (image credit): JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST.

The Japanese Spacecraft Hayabusa-2 has begun its third sample collection of asteroid Ryugu and this one started with a literal bang. The probe shot a cannonball-sized projectile at the asteroid to create a deep enough crater for Hayabusa-2 to fly down and collect a sample of subsurface material from the asteroid.

The probe released the Small Carry-on Impactor (SCI), a free-flying gun, which shot a 2.5-kilogram (5.5-pound) copper projectile using an explosive propellant charge from a distance of 500 meters (1,640 feet). Although a free-flying gun might seem a bit of an overkill, it was a necessary precaution. It allowed the shooting to take place with Hayabusa far enough away to avoid being hit and damaged by debris.

The spacecraft also left behind a deployable camera (DCAM3), which is being used to study the crater and help map where Hayabusa will eventually fly down and land a rover. The craft deployed the two pieces of tech and then flew round to the other side of Ryugu for protection. Forty minutes later, the Japanese space agency (JAXA) gave the “fire” signal. JAXA is currently waiting for the debris to clear for DCAM3 to give visual confirmation of the crater. We do, however, have an image of the debris caused by the bomb. 

This image captured by DCAM3 shows debris from Ryugu’s surface, caused by the collision of the SCI against the asteroid. JAXA, Kobe University, Chiba Institute of Technology, The University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Kochi University, Aichi Toho University, The University of Aizu, and Tokyo University of Science

The projectile is expected to have created a 2-meter-wide (6-foot) crater. Hayabusa will wait two weeks before descending and collecting its final sample. The space probe already collected two samples in February by using small bullets to create dust clouds of material from the surface of Ryugu. It hovered above the surface and used a “sampling horn” to collect the loose material. The samples will be then taken back to Earth by Hayabusa, but not just yet. After the third sample is collected, the spacecraft still has more to do around Ryugu.

The craft has already successfully landed three rovers on the surface of Ryugu in 2018. A fourth one is going to be deployed in July 2019, before the observations come to an end in the final months of 2019. Hayabusa will then fire up its ion engines and begin its return to Earth where it will arrive home in December 2020. The samples will be dropped into the atmosphere and are expected to land somewhere in Australia.

When it returns to Earth in 2020, the spacecraft will have traveled over 5 billion kilometers (3 billion miles). Even that might not be the end of the mission for Hayabusa, as it will still have enough fuel to visit another near-Earth asteroid.

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