Japan's Space Agency Plans To Blast Asteroid With Space Cannon
October 24, 2013

Japan’s Space Agency Plans To Blast Asteroid With Space Cannon

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Those of us who were lucky enough to have an Atari gaming console in the 1980s will remember blasting pixelated Asteroids using a triangular spaceship.

Now, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has announced that it plans to send a space cannon out to blast the surface of asteroid 1999JU3 with a metal bullet in 2018. The mission is primarily for research, but could eventually lead to a system capable of defending Earth from impact threats.

"An artificial crater that can be created by the device is expected to be a small one, a few meters in diameter, but ... by acquiring samples from the surface that is exposed by the collision, we can get fresh samples that are less weathered by the space environment or heat," the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency explained in a statement.

The space cannon will be launched aboard the Hayabusa-2 space probe that is slated to take off in 2014 and to make contact with 1999JU3, which orbits between Earth and Mars, four years later.

Once the Hayabusa-2 is in the correct position, the space cannon will detach itself from the craft. As the cannon gently drifts towards the barren surface, the Hayabusa-2 will scoot around to the other side of the asteroid, where its delicate sensor array will be sheltered from any shrapnel or flying fragments. Once the craft is out of the way, the cannon will detonate itself and fire a large bullet-like object into the asteroid surface in the process.

The Hayabusa-2 will then land near the impact crater and deploy a small rover to gather samples that would have otherwise been buried under the surface. The craft will return to Earth sometime in late 2020. JAXA has predicted that the craft will track the nearly 3,000-foot-diameter asteroid for around 18 months.

The endeavor has "the potential to revolutionize our understanding of pristine materials essential to understanding the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life," JAXA said.

"It can provide important information needed to develop strategies to protect the Earth from potential hazards," the agency added. "Moreover, robotic sampling missions to primitive bodies will be pathfinders for ... human missions that might use asteroid resources to facilitate human exploration and the development of space."

The Hayabusa-2 is the sequel to the original Hayabusa, which gathered space dust from a potato-shaped asteroid and returned to Earth in 2010. JAXA scientists expect that the new mission will enable them to collect the type of asteroid samples that they haven’t been able to access before.

JAXA is the second major space agency to recently announce a new asteroid-related mission. Over the weekend, the Russian space agency said it would partner with the country’s national academy of sciences over a project to neutralize deadly asteroids that may threaten the Earth.

Oleg Ostapenko, head of Russia’s Roscosmos (RKA) space agency, told reporters that spotting and combating asteroid threats is a multifaceted task, which may also require collaboration with Russian military agencies. The potential problem “can be solved only within the framework of all our country’s possibilities,” Ostapenko said.