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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 April 2019

Japan spacecraft bombs asteroid seeking clues to origin of life

Science misison hopes to collect samples to find clues to the origin of the solar system

In this computer graphics image released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Hayabusa2 spacecraft is seen above on the asteroid Ryugu. ISAS / JAXA via AP
In this computer graphics image released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Hayabusa2 spacecraft is seen above on the asteroid Ryugu. ISAS / JAXA via AP

Japan's space agency said its Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully dropped an explosive designed to make a crater on an asteroid and collect its underground samples to find possible clues to the origin of the solar system.

Friday's crater mission is the riskiest for Hayabusa2, as it had to immediately get away so it would not get hit by flying shards from the blast.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said that Hayabusa2 dropped a "small carry-on impactor" made of copper onto the asteroid on Friday morning, and that data confirmed the spacecraft safely evacuated and remained intact.

JAXA is analyzing the data to examine if or how the impactor made a crater.

This image released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (shows an explosive dropped from Hayabusa2 to make a crater on the asteroid Ryugu. JAXA via AP
This image released by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (shows an explosive dropped from Hayabusa2 to make a crater on the asteroid Ryugu. JAXA via AP

The copper explosive is the size of a baseball weighing two kilograms. It was designed to come out of a cone-shaped piece of equipment.

A copper plate on its bottom was to turn into a ball during its descent and slam into the asteroid at two kilometers per second.

JAXA plans to send Hayabusa2 back to the site later, when the dust and debris settle, for observations from above and to collect samples from underground that have not been exposed to the sun or space rays.

Scientists hope the samples will be crucial to determine the history of the asteroid and our planet.

If successful, it would be the first time for a spacecraft to take such materials. In a 2005 "deep impact" mission to a comet, NASA observed fragments after blasting the surface but did not collect them.

After dropping the impactor, the spacecraft was to move quickly to the other side of the asteroid to avoid flying shards from the blast.

The Japan Hayabusa2 spacecraft. Photo by Go Miyazaki / Wikimedia commons
The Japan Hayabusa2 spacecraft. Photo by Go Miyazaki / Wikimedia commons

While moving away, Hayabusa2 also left a camera to capture the outcome. One of its first photos showed the impactor being successfully released and headed to the asteroid.

"So far, Hayabusa2 has done everything as planned, and we are delighted," said mission leader Makoto Yoshikawa.

"But we still have more missions to achieve and it's too early for us to celebrate with 'banzai'."

Hayabusa2 successfully touched down on a tiny flat surface on the asteroid in February, when the spacecraft also collected some surface dust and small debris. The craft is scheduled to leave the asteroid at the end of 2019 and bring surface fragments and underground samples back to Earth in late 2020.

The asteroid, named Ryugu after an undersea palace in a Japanese folktale, is about 300 million kilometres from Earth.

Updated: April 5, 2019 12:22 PM

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