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.
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Three years ago, Japan’s first iteration of the probe, the Hayabusa (“falcon,” in Japanese), made the first ever round-trip mission to an asteroid. Its seven-year trip to and from the Itokawa asteroid, a member of the common S-type of asteroids, brought back for Japan samples that would go on to answer an outstanding question in astronomy: why don’t meteorites that fall to Earth appear to come from the asteroid belt?Skip to next paragraph
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Well, it turns out they do, reported Hayabusa. Based on remote recordings of asteroid’s spectral colors, astronomers had once though that S-type asteroids were too red to be the source of meteorites. But, the Hayabusa team reported, the solar wind had been responsible for distorting the observed colors of asteroids – S-types were not so red, after all. In fact, Hayabusa’s asteroid dust samples turned out to be a compositional match to meteorites. Case closed.
In 2011, the scientific journal Science named the Hayabusa one of the year’s scientific breakthroughs. But it was a mission not without pitfalls. Before Hayabusa touched down and unfurled its asteroid samples, the world had been prepared to call the mission an abject failure.
As Hayabusa headed for the asteroid, the spacecraft lost two of its three attitude-controlling wheels, accidently deployed into deep space the small rover that had been meant to tour the asteroid’s surface, and struggled to touch down on the asteroid. En route home, things went from bad to worse. The craft short-circuited. It sprung a fuel leak. It lost communication with Earth.
When Hayabusa’s baseball-sized sample capsule did drop to Earth, to everyone’s surprise, it was three years late. JAXA at first reported that there was nothing inside: no asteroid samples, it appeared, had even been collected.
Of course, everything turned out just fine: Hayabusa had collected about 100 tiny particles from the asteroid. But JAXA is taking no chances with Hayabusa 2. The agency reports that problems identified in the craft’s predecessor have been identified and mended. It also says that Hayabusa 2 will have one advantage Hayabusa didn’t get: letters from home.
In collaboration with the Planetary Society, JAXA is attaching chips full of “support messages” from earthlings to the craft. The project is called “Let’s meet with Le Petit Prince!,” in homage to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 novella about a celestial royal fallen to Earth from a small asteroid.
Meanwhile, NASA has hatched plans to send its own robotic capture vehicle to an asteroid in 2018, bag it up, and then send a manned spacecraft to sample it. If the project goes forward – the plan to snag an asteroid has encountered political snags in Congress – it would be the first manned mission an asteroid.
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