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Japan’s asteroid probe is about to shoot a bullet at an asteroid

Published Feb 21st, 2019 1:16PM EST
asteroid bullet
Image: JAXA, Tokyo University, Kochi Univ., Rikkyo Univ., Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji Univ., Aizu Univ., AIST

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Last year, the Japanese space program (JAXA) successfully arrived at the diamond-shaped space rock known as Ryugu. The spacecraft, known as Hayabusa2, spent the latter half of 2018 deploying tiny rovers to the asteroid’s surface and relaying lots of awesome images. Now, the probe is set to attempt its most challenging maneuver to date.

JAXA has announced that it will attempt an incredibly brief touchdown on the asteroid, while also firing a spherical projectile at its surface. It will try to collect samples from its newly-formed hole while avoiding a collision. It’ll make its move early on Friday, and none of this is going to be easy.

Hayabusa2 has already taught scientists a lot about the Ryugu asteroid, but snatching some samples of the space rock for study back on Earth would be a home run. Unfortunately for the probe’s handlers, communicating with the spacecraft is difficult due to its distance from our planet.

Commands sent from Earth take around 20 minutes to reach the probe, and the touch-and-go maneuver will be over within seconds. That means the team has to tell Hayabusa2 what to do and hope that it can pull it off without help from its controllers. This is made even more challenging by the fact that Ryugu is absolutely covered in debris, which is something scientists were surprised to see when the spacecraft arrived last year.

To make things easier, the probe will be directed to a specific location that is relatively free of large rocks, but that spot is only around 20 feet wide, which will still pose a major challenge for the spacecraft to nail.

Assuming all goes well, the probe will repeat this feat two more times before eventually heading back to Earth. When it arrives, researchers will be eager to examine its asteroid sample payload and we’ll likely learn a lot more about the space rock.