Earlier this month, Japan’s space agency JAXA launched an explosive projectile at the space rock known as Ryugu from its Hayabusa2 asteroid probe. Japan wanted to blow a crater into the surface of the rock in order to collect some samples of the material lying underneath, and early observations suggested it nailed its mark as planned. Now we can finally see exactly what the crater looks like.
To blow a hole in an asteroid without destroying the spacecraft itself — and without the force of the shot pushing Hayabusa2 back out into space — JAXA equipped the probe with explosive cannon-like charges that it releases into space above the asteroid’s surface. The probe them retreats to a safe distance, the single-shot explosive charge fires its bullet-like projectile at the surface, and the probe returns to the site later.
The deployment and firing of the projectile took place in early April, and now that the dust and debris has settled, Hayabusa2 has returned to the location and observed the crater it created.
As you can see in the GIF above, the projectile struck Ryugu as intended, pushing some of the larger rocks away and displacing much of the pale white dust that covered the surface. What’s left behind is a dark area of “fresh” asteroid material, which is exactly what JAXA was hoping for.
JAXA scientists were initially skeptical that the projectile could create a hole of a reasonable size. Some more pessimistic estimates suggested the crater might be as small as three meters across. This crater is significantly larger, and Hayabusa2’s engineers noted that they were pleasantly surprised with the results.
It’s a huge success for Hayabusa2, but the probe’s job isn’t done yet. JAXA ultimately wants to retrieve a sample of this fresh material before it commands Hayabusa2 to return to Earth, but the safety of the spacecraft is paramount and it’s unclear if or when such a maneuver would happen. The spacecraft is expected to spend much of the rest of the year in orbit around the asteroid, so JAXA will have plenty of time to decide how to proceed.