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Science

Spacecraft Hayabusa2 drops bomb and punches crater in asteroid

Japanese probe aims to expose secrets of the solar system

A rendering of Hayabusa2 landing on a crater on the asteroid Ryugu. (Image courtesy of JAXA)

TOKYO -- Japan's Hayabusa2 space probe has successfully fired a bomblike projectile at an asteroid in the first attempt at artificially forming a crater to see what lies below the surface, with hopes of illuminating the evolution of the solar system and life.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, announced the milestone Friday. The "small carry-on impactor" was released around 11 a.m. JST and reached the asteroid Ryugu about 40 minutes later. A remote camera captured a cloud of dust on the surface that confirmed a hit.

"We have established a new method for exploring space," said Yuichi Tsuda, mission project manager.

Hayabusa2 will confirm toward the end of April whether a crater was successfully created. It could land on the asteroid as early as May.

The goal was to create a meters-wide indentation for observation and sample collection. Researchers aim to uncover layers that have been protected from the harsh radiation of space in a search for organic compounds and water.

If successful, Hayabusa2 would be the first probe to bring subsurface samples from an asteroid back to Earth. Costs through its return in late 2020 are expected to total 28.9 billion yen ($259 million).

The overall mission has helped bolster Japanese capabilities in space. As part of the latest maneuver, Hayabusa2 went to the side of the asteroid that was opposite the collision and recorded the impact via remote camera.

"We can now control probes exactly how we want, which opens up many opportunities for further space missions," said Takashi Kubota, research director at JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science.

American space agency NASA looks to land its Osiris-Rex probe on the asteroid Bennu in 2020. It does not plan to make a crater there -- an approach unique to Japan for now. Even observing Ryugu's crater from orbit would mark a significant scientific achievement.

Japan fell behind the U.S. and Russia in probing the moon but has carved out a niche in asteroids. It wants to leverage the latest success to continue leading the world in the field.

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