No, it’s not a Michael Bay movie, but a spacecraft just bombed an asteroid

Call it life imitating Michael Bay movies if you want! A spacecraft this week bombed an asteroid as it hurtled through space, approximately 186 million miles from Earth. The Japanese spacecraft, called Hayabusa2, released its explosive cargo Thursday night from a height of around 1,500 feet above asteroid 162173 Ryugu. The small carry-on impactor (SCI) projectile that it released, containing plastic explosive, blew a small crater in the asteroid.

To protect itself during the explosion, Hayabusa2 maneuvered to the far side of the asteroid to avoid any damage. It will later return to the crater site to collect a sample to bring back to Earth. The crater made by the projectile could measure up to 32 feet across, depending on the exact circumstances at the time of impact.

According to project scientist Sei-ichiro Watanabe, speaking at last month’s 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), the mission was intended to “provide us with information of the strength of the surface layer of Ryugu.” Because Ryugu dates back to the earliest days of our solar system, it could help reveal information about the conditions present in that corner of the universe approximately 4.5 billion years ago.

Hayabusa2 was launched on December 3, 2014. It is operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Japan’s answer to NASA. Designed specifically to extract samples of an asteroid, Hayabusa2 first rendezvoused with the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu in June 2018. Since then, the unmanned spacecraft has continually carried out surveys of the asteroid. This has included successfully deploying two small robotic landers, called MINERVA-II, which took photos and measurements of the asteroid’s temperature. Hayabusa2 has also landed on the asteroid’s surface where it fired a bullet-like projectile into the surface in order to collect a sample of dust.

Hayabusa2 will continue monitoring Ryugu until December 2019. After this, it will begin the long journey back home (around twice the distance of Earth to the sun), eventually expected to arrive back in December 2020. That’s just in time for researchers to get a very eagerly anticipated asteroid sample for the holidays — and the rest of us to enjoy some “getting rich” daydreams about the possibilities posed by future asteroid mining!

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