Japan Space Cannon On Track For 2014 Mission To Blast Asteroid

By Ben Wolford on October 24, 2013 2:43 PM EDT

Japan's space agency is on track to complete its asteroid cannon.
Japan's space agency is on track to complete its asteroid cannon.

It sounds like a James Bond plot: The Japanese are testing a space gun to blast a hole in the side of a near-earth asteroid to find aliens.

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But it's true. Japan's space agency announced Wednesday it was well on its way to launch its asteroid cannon by the 2018 target date. The space probe Hayabusa-2 is supposed to carry the weapon out to an asteroid called 1999JU3, a space rock that scientists think might house building blocks for life, Phys.org reports. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, said it had successfully tested the machine and was on track to meet the deadline.

"The Hayabusa-2 project is progressing as planned," a spokesman for JAXA told Agence France-Press.

The Japanese have been praticing with asteroid approaches for a while. In 2003 they lauched the first Hayabusa, which apparently was a disaster, according to the Russian news agency Pravda. They were a year late shooting it into the sky, it got slammed by a solar flare that damaged an ion battery and it was three years late returning home. But it managed to land on a small asteroid called Itokawa.

When it did finally come back to earth, the scientists couldn't even be certain the dust samples were pure, uncontaminated Itokawa dirt. Hayabusa-2 is take two. And this time they're going all out.

A bunch of researchers spent 2007 observing their next target, 1999JU3, which is a bit bigger than Itokawa and was visible from earth that year. In 2008, they published a report in Lunar and Planetary Science explaining how they nailed down its rotation speed and composition. "The rotational period of this asteroid was unknown before our campaign," they wrote. "If this asteroid is a fast rotator, it will be difficult for the spacecraft to land on the surface for sampling."

The astroid, scientists said, "is one of the most accessible asteroids by spacecraft."

That's important because Hayabusa-2 needs to swoop in close enough to have a clear shot. The plan is this:

Around 2018, H2A rockets will launch the spacecraft from southern Japan. Then it'll spend the next four years in transit. Once it's close enough, Hayabusa-2 will hover over the asteroid, deploy its space-gun cargo and then get out of the way. The probe will swing around to the rear of the asteroid while the cannon takes aim. That's when the gun will fire by detonating itself, hurling a big metal bullet into the asteroid. Hayabusa-2 then heads for the crater and touches down, picking up samples to take home by 2020.

In addition to looking for water and life-yeilding stuff, the scientists are trying to learn more about how the asteroid got made and — here's the sci-fi part — gather intelligence about missions like these in case we ever have to find off an asteroid apocalypse, Pravda reported. For example, in 2032, there's a quarter-mile-wide asteroid headed our way that has one-in-14,000 chance of crashing into earth. It's best to be prepared.

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