October 26, 2013
Orbit of the 1999 JU3 asteroid. Credit: JAXA
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is planning an interesting mission to launch the Hayabusa-2 space probe equipped with a cannon, bomb an asteroid, collect the debris and bring samples back to Earth.
Back in 2003, JAXA launched the Hayabusa space probe which successfully observed, then landed on the 500 meter wide asteroid named Itokawa, took samples and returned to Earth in 2010. Now, second mission of such nature is planned, building on experience gained in the first one. Space probe named Hayabusa-2 will take asteroid exploration a step further.
The asteroid in question is designated 1999 JU3, 920 meters wide and has a similar orbit to Itokawa asteroid. Both asteroids orbit the Sun mostly between the Earth and Mars. Itokawa, however, is S-type rocky asteroid, while 1999 JU3 is C-type asteroid, which means it is possible it contains water and organic material. Samples brought back by Hayabusa-2 could answer some questions about origin of water and life on Earth.
Now, here's the interesting part – in order to get "fresh" samples, JAXA intends to bomb the asteroid. This way, the Hayabusa-2 probe can collect samples that haven't been compromised by space environment, extreme heat and extreme cold. It will feature ion engines and upgraded guidance and navigation technology. It will carry a small, 2 kg heavy explosively formed penetrator in order to create a crater several meters in diameter.
After the explosive is dropped, the probe will maneuver behind the asteroid to stay protected from the blast, but not before it deploys a camera (DCAM3) that will record the event. Hayabusa-2 is to be launched in 2014, reach the asteroid in 2018, stay there for a year and a half and return to Earth with samples at the end of 2020.