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Japan tests asteroid-blasting 'space cannon'

Japan’s space agency conducted a successful test this week of its 'space cannon,' designed to embark on a mission to blast a crater in an an asteroid next year.

By Contributor / October 25, 2013

Japan's space agency says it will send a space probe to an asteroid in 2014, building on an earlier craft's mission to a different asteroid, seen here in a 2006 artist's rendering.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency/AP

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Japan’s space agency conducted a successful test this week of its “space cannon,” expected to depart on a mission to shoot an asteroid in 2014, as part of the Hayabusa 2 mission.

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The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to launch space probe Hayabusa 2 to an asteroid next year, in hopes of sampling a class of asteroids expected to be rich in organic materials. The mission is expected to help astronomers better understand the relationship between asteroid organic materials and those found on Earth, as well as to burnish Japan’s reputation as a top space explorer.

The news comes just one month after JAXA launched into space its Epsilon rocket, a cost-effective rocket that runs on automated systems, not human operators. The rocket has been billed as heralding a new generation of high-tech spacecraft, along with Japan’s reentry to the forefront of Earth’s foray into the final frontier, after decades of intermittent space flops.

In 1970, Japan had become the third country to put a satellite in space, after the United States and the former Soviet Union. But, since then, the island nation has had a checkered relationship with space exploration, the New York Times reported in 2010.

Japan has never put a person in space, though it has an ongoing manned spaceflight program, with the hope of launching an astronaut in 2025. Japan’s Akatsuki probe, slated to orbit Venus, missed the piping hot planet two years ago and veered for the sun. Two Japanese satellites were lost in just three months in 2000. A 1998 probe launched for Mars missed the Red Planet. 

The latest project, Hayabusa 2, is not an asteroid destruction mission – unlike the planet-destroying Death Star in ‘Star Wars,’ Hayabusa 2 is not primed to boom a giant hunk of rock out of existence. Instead, the probe’s so-called cannon is intended to put an artificial crater into the target, the C-type asteroid 1999 JU3, with a 4-pound projectile, exposing subsurface material. Hayabusa 2, which will have detached from the canon and gone to “hide behind the asteroid” while the cannon does the explosive work, will then sample the material, believed to be rich in water and organic matter.

The craft, set to depart in 2014, is expected to reach the asteroid in June 2018. It is due to return to Earth in December 2020.

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