Japan Just Launched an Asteroid-Exploding Probe

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft will blast a hole in asteroid 1999 JU3 come 2018.

Dec 3 2014, 6:00pm

​Screenshot of JAXA launch video. Image: JAXA/YouTube.

Today, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully launched Hayabusa2, kicking off a six-year sample return mission to the asteroid 1999 JU3, a primordial C-type asteroid thought to be rich in water and organic materials.

Hayabusa2, lifting off. Launch begins at 1:09:03. Credit: JAXA/YouTube.

The agency already has plenty of practice with wrangling asteroid samples. In June 2010, the original Hayabusa spacecraft delivered flecks of asteroid 25143 Itokawa safely back to the Earth, capping off of seven-year journey. Hayabusa remains the first and only successful asteroid sample return mission (NASA's Stardust mission achieved similar results, but with a comet, Wild-2).

The samples returned in 2010, consisting of 1534 dust particles, revealed that Itokawa was ripped apart at one point, which yielded insights about how to break up an asteroid that might be on a collision course with Earth. It also represented the first steps towards asteroid-mining, which is already being bandied about as a major industry of the future.

The Itokawa samples also provided a unique window into the early solar system, which is one of the major reasons that asteroid sample return missions are such a powerful scientific tool. Information about planetary development, the distribution of water, and even the origin of life may be locked deep with asteroids. To get at it, we can't just wait for good samples to fall to Earth; we have to actively go out and look for them.

JAXA has laid out an even more ambitious agenda with its second Hayabusa probe, which has the potential to deliver a huge scientific payoff. According to JAXA's mission overview, 1999 JU3 is a C-type asteroid, which means it is more primordial than the S-type 25143 Itokawa. Accordingly, it is expected to contain more water and organic materials.

"Minerals and seawater which form the Earth as well as materials for life are believed to be strongly connected in the primitive solar nebula in the early solar system," the agency's press release explained. "[T]hus we expect to clarify the origin of life by analyzing samples acquired from a primordial celestial body such as a C-type asteroid to study organic matter and water in the solar system and how they coexist while affecting each other."

Not content to rest on any laurels, JAXA's teams has dramatically upped the stakes with Hayabusa2. Most significantly, this version is packing heat. The plan is to blast a hole into 1999 JU3 with a bullet-like instrument called the Small Carry-On Impactor. The orbiting spacecraft will then observe the developing crater, and send a lander to collect deeper and less weathered samples from the impact site.

Artist's depiction on Hayabusa2 and 1999 JU3. Image: JAXA.

In addition to the impactor, Hayabusa2 is carrying a lander called MASCOT, developed by the German Aerospace Center in collaboration with CNES, and three rovers that will sample multiple sites on the asteroid. The spacecraft is expected to reach 1999 JU3 in 2018, and to return its payload of samples in 2020.

Not even a month after the European Space Agency made history with the first ever landing on a comet, JAXA has given us a new space mission to be excited about. You better watch out, asteroid 1999 JU3, because Hayabusa is armed, dangerous, and headed your way.