Japan launches asteroid-hunting spacecraft

During six-year mission, Hayabusa2 will drop tiny rover robots onto surface of asteroid 1999 JU3 for scientific tests.

by
    The $260m spacecraft will travel more than 5 billion kilometres [Getty Images]
    The $260m spacecraft will travel more than 5 billion kilometres [Getty Images]

    Japan's space agency has launched an ambitious space mission which aims to mine an asteroid and hunt for clues about the birth of the solar system.

    About the size of a fridge, and fitted with an explosive bullet, Japan's asteroid-hunting spacecraft embarked on a six-year space mission on Wednesday.

    Building on a previous mission, which managed to bring rock fragments from another asteroid back to Earth in 2010, this time Hayabusa2 aims to do more.

    The $260m spacecraft uses ion engines - a system which uses electricity to accelerate gas particles.

    "That makes a jet that goes extremely fast about 30-40km/s," said Dr Francisco Diego, from University College London. "Although the mass of this gas is very very low, it produces a little bit of a push in a very  efficient way and that's enough to steer the spacecraft along the orbit."

    Hayabusa2 has a long way to go: more than 5 billion kilometres.

    Tiny robots

    For the next two and a half years it will play catch-up with asteroid 1999 JU3. The asteroid is one of many that orbit the Sun, mainly between Earth and Mars. Once Hayabusa2 arrives, it will spend 18 months studying the asteroid.

    Experiments include dropping tiny rover robots onto the surface to make scientific tests of the structure and chemical make-up of the asteroid.

    The most ambitious part of the mission involves firing a high-speed explosive bullet into the asteroid's crust.

    "It's going to produce a crater," said Diego. "It's going to produce a puff of material, ejecting material out into space, which is going to be collected by this instrument, and part of that cloud is going to be brought back."

    When that process is completed, Hayabusa2 will begin a year-long journey back to Earth, where it is hoped to arrive in 2020.

    Scientists say the rock from inside the asteroid will be less weathered by the space environment and by heat. They hope these rocks will answer some fundamental questions about the early stages of the formation of the solar system, how Earth evolved, and where the Earth's oceans may have formed.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


    YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

    The shocking story of Israel's disappeared babies

    The shocking story of Israel's disappeared babies

    New information has come to light about thousands of mostly Yemeni children believed to have been abducted in the 1950s.

    Stories from the sex trade

    Stories from the sex trade

    Dutch sex workers, pimps and johns share their stories.

    Inside the world of India's booming fertility industry

    Inside the world of India's booming fertility industry

    As the stigma associated with being childless persists, some elderly women in India risk it all to become mothers.