Japan Preparing to Land Robotic Spacecraft on Asteroid... Then Drop Explosives On It

Friday, 31 August 2018 - 10:51AM
Technology
Friday, 31 August 2018 - 10:51AM
Japan Preparing to Land Robotic Spacecraft on Asteroid... Then Drop Explosives On It
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Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Back in December 2014, Japan's JAXA space agency launched its Hayabusa-2 mission to the near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu to collect and return samples for study. After the 42-month, 186-million-mile journey, the spacecraft reached and began orbiting the asteroid on June 27. Recently, JAXA announced that the robotic spacecraft will finally attempt to land on the diamond-shaped rock in hopes of becoming the "world's first sample return mission to a C-type asteroid."

CNN reports that on September 21, the first of Hayabusa-2's landers will be deployed, with the second following suit on October 3. The landers will collect samples and conduct experiments on the surface of the asteroid, and the spacecraft itself will land on Ryugu at a later date to drop explosives and collect samples from inside the 900-meter-wide asteroid. "By exploring a C-type asteroid, which is rich in water and organic materials, we will clarify interactions between the building blocks of Earth and the evolution of its oceans and life, thereby developing solar system science," the space agency said in a mission update earlier this summer.

Even reaching the asteroid with the spacecraft was a big deal for Japan, given Ryugu's size and distance from Earth. JAXA has compared it to "aiming at a 6-centimeter target in Brazil from Japan." But just getting there isn't enough-the real goal is to beat the United States. As we reported last week, NASA's OSIRIS-REx probe is also about to land on a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu. That mission is supposed to return in 2023, and Hayabusa-2 is currently due back on Earth in 2020. Japan may be years ahead in this race, but both timelines rely on everything going according to plan, starting with the respective landings. It will be exciting to see if things come down to a photo finish, or if one nation's machine is destined to stay in space forever.

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