A Japanese Hayabusa 2 spacecraft has arrived at its target – an asteroid shaped like a diamond or, according to some, a spinning top.
Hayabusa 2 has been travelling toward the space rock Ryugu since launching from the Tanegashima spaceport in 2014.
It is on a quest to study the object close-up and deliver rocks and soil from Ryugu to Earth.
It will use explosives to propel a projectile into Ryugu, digging out a fresh sample from beneath the surface.
Dr Makoto Yoshikawa, Hayabusa 2’s mission manager, talked about the plan now that the spacecraft had arrived at its destination.
“At first, we will study very carefully the surface features. Then we will select where to touch down. Touchdown means we get the surface material,” he told me.
A copper projectile, or “impactor” will separate from the spacecraft, floating down to the surface of the asteroid. Once Hayabusa 2 is safely out of the way, an explosive charge will detonate, driving the projectile into the surface.
“We have an impactor which will create a small crater on the surface of Ryugu. Maybe in spring next year, we will try to make a crater… then our spacecraft will try to reach into the crater to get the subsurface material.”
“But this is a very big challenge.”
Why is this story important?
Scientists study asteroids to gain insights into the origins and evolution of our cosmic neighbourhood, the Solar System.
Asteroids are essentially leftover building materials from the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.
It’s also thought they may contain chemical compounds that could have been important for kick-starting life on Earth.
They contain water, organic (carbon-rich) compounds and precious metals. The last of those has tempted several companies to look into the feasibility of asteroid mining.