After blasting a hole in the surface, Japan's asteroid chasing spacecraft will try to pull off an audacious space heist.
Japan's JAXA space agency is preparing for the next part of its smash and grab operation at asteroid Ryugu. On Wednesday night, the agency's Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which has been trailing the asteroid since June 2018, will briefly touch down on the surface to collect debris from the space rock. The agency will broadcast images of Ryugu and video of the control room during the critical sampling mission.
The Hayabusa2 spacecraft already performed one brief touchdown on the big space rock and then shot a copper projectile at it earlier this year to create an artificial crater on the asteroid's surface. Next, the spaceship will lower itself back down to touch Ryugu a second time with the aim of collecting some of the subsurface material exposed by the crater-creating blast.
Think of it as extremely complicated, very small-scale asteroid mining.
Hayabusa2's contact with Ryugu is set to happen around 7 p.m. PT Wednesday. During Hayabusa2's approach, a live feed of images will be constantly delivered to the mission webpage. In addition, JAXA will be livestreaming from its mission control beginning about 90 minutes prior, at 5:30 p.m. PT, and you can come back to watch right here via the embed below.
Because asteroids like Ryugu are sort of like time capsules from the solar system's formation, scientists hope the samples will provide new insights into the history of our corner of the cosmos. "This will be the world's first collection of samples from multiple locations and also the first sample from below the surface" of an asteroid, reads a blog post from the mission team.
Hayabusa2 is equipped with a system that fires a small bullet at the asteroid surface from close range, stirring up dust and debris which can then be collected via a horn-shaped sample-gathering chamber.
JAXA has expressed some uncertainty over whether the risks involved in attempting a second touchdown on Ryugu's rough, boulder-strewn surface are outweighed by the scientific value of grabbing that historic sample. There's also the issue of some dust stirred up by the first touchdown sticking to a navigation camera and letting in less light.
But after further analysis, the team has determined the risks involved in a second touchdown are less or equal to that of the first such operation.
NASA is in the midst of its own asteroid-tagging mission, Osiris-Rex, which is currently prepping to sample the asteroid Bennu.
Originally published July 9.