A Japanese probe began to descend toward an asteroid on Thursday (April 4) on a mission to blow up a crater on its surface and collect material that could shed light on the evolution of the solar system.
The mission will be the latest in a series of explorations by the Japanese space agency's Hayabusa2 spacecraft and could reveal more about the origin of life on Earth.
But the task set for Friday will be the most risky of Hayabusa's investigations2 and involves the release of a device packed with explosives.
The so-called "small pendulum," a cone-shaped device with a copper bottom, will leave Hayabusa2 on Friday after the spacecraft reaches only 500 meters above the Ryugu asteroid.
The probe will then leave the area, and the impactor is scheduled to explode 40 minutes later, propelling the copper bottom to Ryugu, where it is to dig a crater on the surface of the asteroid that is 300 million kilometers from Earth.
Hayabusa2 will move away from the area to avoid being damaged by debris from the blast or by collision with Ryugu.
In doing so, it will release a camera just above the blasting site that should be able to capture images of the event.
The camera should be able to transmit these images, but it is not clear when the first confirmation of the success of the mission will come.
It will take two weeks for the probe itself to return to its "starting position" near Ryugu after the detonation and impact.
"We are excited to see what happens when the impactor collides with the asteroid," Takashi Kubota, an engineering researcher at the Japanese space agency (JAXA), told reporters earlier this week.
The crater can be up to 10 meters in diameter if the surface is sandy, but less than three meters if it is rocky, according to Jaxa scientists.
& # 39; DRAGON PALACE & # 39;
NASA's Deep Impact project was able to create an artificial crater in a comet in 2005, but only for observation purposes.
The goal of the Ryugu crater is to cast "fresh" material under the surface of the asteroid, which could clarify the early days of the solar system.
In February, Hayabusa landed briefly on Ryugu and fired a bullet at the surface to swell the dust for the collection, before exploding back into its retention position.
It is believed that the asteroid contained relatively large amounts of organic matter and water 4.6 billion years ago when the solar system was born.
The Hayabusa2 mission, priced at about 30 billion yen ($ 270 million), was launched in December 2014 and is scheduled to return to Earth with its samples in 2020.
Photos of Ryugu – meaning "Dragon Palace" in Japanese and refers to a castle on the ocean floor in an ancient Japanese tale – show that the asteroid has a rough surface full of rocks.
Hayabusa2 looks at the surface of the asteroid with its camera and sensor equipment, but also dispatched two tiny MINERVA-II rover robots as well as the Franco-German robot MASCOT to aid in surface observation.
Approximately the size of a large refrigerator, Hayabusa2 is equipped with solar panels and is the successor of JAXA's first asteroid explorer, the Hayabusa – Japanese for hawk.
This probe returned with dust samples from a minor potato asteroid in 2010, despite several setbacks during its seven-year epic odyssey and was hailed as a scientific triumph.