What's it like to fire a big bullet into an asteroid? Japan's space agency, JAXA, is getting closer to finding out, after announcing on October 23rd that it had successfully test-fired a space cannon.
“The speed of the device is over 2,000 meters per second and the configuration is exactly as we had planned," Takanao Saiki, a scientist working on the project, told EuroNews. "We are very satisfied with the result of the test."
The next big step is scheduled to come in 2014, when JAXA launches the cannon into space aboard its Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, the Telegraph reported.
Plans call for the spacecraft to rendezvous with asteroid 1993JU in 2018. The space cannon will separate from the main spacecraft and slowly lower itself toward the asteroid's surface, and then fire a four-pound metal bullet into the asteroid, creating a small crater.
The Hayabusa-2 spacecraft will avoid damage by sheltering itself on the opposite of the planet when the cannon fires. But then it will circle back around and land on the asteroid, collecting soil samples from the crater before blasting off for a return trip to Earth.
The sample-laden probe should be back home around 2020, Agence France-Presse reported.
JAXA is targeting asteroid 1993JU in particular because it believes the space rock might contain organic compounds needed to support life. Samples taken from the crater are expected to be "fresh" and "less weathered by the space environment or heat" -- and could potentially "revolutionize our understanding of pristine materials essential to understanding the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life," according to a written statement on the JAXA website.
This will be JAXA's second attempt to collect samples from an asteroid, according to the Institute of Physics in London. The first Hayabusa craft returned to Earth with much fanfare in 2010 after collecting dust samples from asteroid Itokawa.
WATCH an animated simulation of JAXA's Hayabusa-2 mission, below.