Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Japan is going to blast a crater in an asteroid for science

Published Mar 18th, 2019 5:33PM EDT
asteroid crater
Image: JAXA, Tokyo University, Kochi Univ., Rikkyo Univ., Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji Univ., Aizu Univ., AIST

If you buy through a BGR link, we may earn an affiliate commission, helping support our expert product labs.

Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft is doing some big things during its time at the asteroid known as Ryugu. JAXA, Japan’s space program, arrived at the space rock last year and, after much planning, fired a projectile into its surface late last month to collect some samples of it surface. Now, JAXA is planning for an even more daring maneuver.

Getting samples from Ryugu’s surface is great, but JAXA also wants to fetch some of the material from within the asteroid itself. Hayabusa2 isn’t equipped with a drill or digging tool to pierce the asteroid’s surface, but it did bring some explosives.

Hayabusa2’s first sample attempt was fairly straightforward, with the spacecraft dropping down near the rock’s surface, firing a small projectile, and then capturing some of the debris kicked up by the impact.

To get subsurface material, the probe will release what is called a carry-on impactor into the sky above Ryugu. The impactor consists of a larger copper projectile and an explosive charge. It’s a bit like a one-shot cannon and, once it’s released and Hayabusa2 moves to a safe distance, it will fire into the asteroid’s surface and produce a large crater.

The crater, which JAXA estimates will be around a meter deep and as large as 10 meters in diameter, will be the location from which Hayabusa2 fetches its subsurface sample if all goes well. At this point, the safety of the spacecraft is a top priority for JAXA and, while researchers would love a sample from within the asteroid, a go-ahead for the touch-and-go sample collection will depend on their being a safe place for the probe to come down.

The release of the impactor is currently scheduled for April 5th, but it will take at least another two weeks before the dust and debris has cleared and JAXA can get a good look at the hole they’ve created.