In the first week of April, a Japanese spacecraft blasted a small crater into an asteroid more than 180 million miles from Earth — and now we’ve finally got the first images of its explosive handy work. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which operates the excavating spacecraft, released before and after pictures of the new crater site, showing a slight indentation in the rock that wasn’t there before.
The new crater is the product of Hayabusa2, which has been hanging out around an asteroid named Ryugu since June of 2018. Hayabusa2 is supposed to return samples of Ryugu back to Earth, and so far, the spacecraft has successfully completed part of this mission. On February 21st, the spacecraft moved in close to Ryugu and shot a bullet-like projectile into the object’s surface, sending bits of rock up into the vehicle’s sample chamber.
But JAXA is also interested in possibly grabbing samples from deeper inside Ryugu, and that’s why Hayabusa2 got a little violent with the asteroid. The mission team equipped the spacecraft with a bomb that Hayabusa2 deployed on April 4th. The device — a cone-shaped canister filled with explosives — detonated just over the surface of Ryugu. The goal was to create an artificial crater that exposed the insides of the asteroid, precious material that scientists want to study. The rocks located within Ryugu haven’t been exposed to the space environment for billions of years like the rocks on the asteroid’s exterior. That means this material is more well-preserved and represents what the asteroid looked like when it first formed.
While this bombing happened, Hayabusa2 was far away from detonation site to keep the spacecraft safe. But the spacecraft deployed a mobile camera that caught the action from far away, giving the mission team an idea of where the blast occurred. Then yesterday, Hayabusa2 went in search of the site and found the possible crater it made.
Now JAXA will examine the crater Hayabusa2 made and decide if the spacecraft should actually go in and grab a sample. It’s possible the task will be deemed too risky to perform. But if the spacecraft does go in for a grab, the vehicle could soon be in possession of some very unspoiled rock that’s been around since the dawn of the Solar System.