You have to crawl before you can walk — be you a baby or an asteroid-blasting space cannon. Now, after a successful test-fire here on Earth, Japan's specially made cannon for its Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is ready to take its first, real steps in outer space.
Built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the space cannon's job is to fire off a 1.8kg metal projectile into the catchily named 1999JU3 asteroid, giving the previously attached space probe access to all that sweet, sweet asteroid soil. Because the surface of asteroids have been affected by the harsh environment of space, the only way to get at the information-rich interior is by essentially making a DIY crater.
So once Hayabusa 2 is properly positioned between Earth and Mars — where 1999JU3 orbits — the spacecraft will release the cannon, float downwards, and head off to take refuge behind the asteroid before the space blaster does its damage. It's at this point that Japanese scientists here on Earth will remotely detonate the cannon, allowing Hayabusa 2 to float back over and collect all the newly revealed asteroid debris it can carry.
While we won't know for sure until we have the samples, scientists are fairly confident that this C-type asteroid has remained relatively the same since our solar system first began, which would allow them new insight into planet formation. What they're really hoping for though is leftover water and organic matter form our galaxy's humble beginnings.
We've got a bit of a wait before we'll know for certain what I999JU3 holds; Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to arrive at its target mid-2018, and we won't have the soil samples back on Earth until sometime in 2019. In the meantime, you can sleep a little easier knowing that planet Earth is the proud owner of a space cannon, and it works. [RT]