The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft has just bombed an asteroid. It fired a projectile packed with explosives towards the rocky surface, creating a crater from which it can gather samples for analysis.

Image credits: JAXA.

Hovering at 500 meters above the asteroid, Hayabusa 2 just opened fire on an asteroid. It wasn’t a declaration of war but rather a scientific maneuver. The idea was to create an artificial crater on the object known as Ryugu to allow the collection of samples from beneath the surface.

In December 2014, Hayabusa was launched towards the Ryugu asteroid. After three years, it touched down briefly, and last year, it deployed two robots on the surface, which sent back dramatic images and video footage. Now, as the mission progresses, the spacecraft is set to collect samples that will eventually be brought back to Earth. In order to do that, it must first break through the asteroid’s rough surface — which is why the projectile was shot.

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It’s not yet entirely clear if the attempt was successful and it could take several days to confirm whether everything went according to plan. However, initial images seem to suggest that the shooting was successful.

Hayabusa 2 seems to have been successful, but it will be a few days before we have confirmation. Image credits: JAXA.

Hayabusa 2 fired the projectile and then navigated to the opposite side of the small asteroid to avoid the dust and pebble ejection. It will return to the site after things have calmed down to gather samples from the newly-formed crater.

“We are excited to see what will happen when the impactor collides with the asteroid,” Takashi Kubota, an engineering researcher at Jaxa, said before the detonation.

The asteroid samples are expected to offer researchers new insights into how the solar system came to be. However, because the surface is constantly bombarded by solar rays which can alter the rock’s properties, samples need to be taken from beneath the surface, hence the need for a crater-creating explosion.

It’s not exactly clear how big the crater will be — it all depends on the asteroid’s composition, which is not fully known. If it’s more sandy, the crater can be up to 10 meters in size, but if it’s more compact, the crater will measure around 3 meters. Researchers believe that the asteroid contains relatively large amounts of organic matter and water from 4.6bn years ago when the solar system was born.
As for Hayabusa 2, it’s expected to make its way back to Earth sometime between November and December, with a landing set for late-2020.