Japanese scientists successfully tested a 'space cannon' this week

Not content with merely breaking the bonds of gravity and touching the face of God, now we want to fire plastic explosive into it.

A reminder there are some damned exciting space plans being worked on right now - in Japan, scientists report that a “space cannon” they have been building is armed and fully operational, and has been tested successfully (albeit not actually yet in space).

Hayabusa-2, designed and built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA for short) will be launched into space next year, and head off to intercept the orbit of an asteroid called 1999JU3. It’s the successor probe to Hayabusa-1, which landed on the asteroid Itokawa in 2005, collected some samples, and returned home. It was the first such sample-and-return mission, one which Hayabusa-2 will build on.

1999JU3 is roughly a kilometre in diameter, and is an Apollo asteroid. That’s a class of asteroid that orbits the Sun within the orbit of Mars, in between the innermost three plants of Mercury, Venus and Earth. They occasionally cross into our orbit, making them a threat - that’s what the Chelyabinsk meteor was - but 1999JU3 isn’t. It is an interesting one, though, because it’s assumed to be made up of material similar to those found on the early Earth, and thus carry some of the organic compounds that we assume, on our planet, become life.

But you’re here for the space cannon, right? Here’s how it’s going to work.

After arriving at the asteroid sometime in 2018, and after taking 18 months’ worth of readings, Hayabusa-2 will deploy its cannon on one side of the asteroid (plus a camera so it can watch) before heading over to the opposite side. That way, nothing from the explosion should damage it.

Then, the space cannon will drift in. As it gets close to the surface it’ll detonate, firing a bullet containing 4.5kg of plastic explosive into the asteroid’s surface, blowing a crater into the asteroid’s side. Hayabusa-2 will emerge from hiding on the far side, swoop down to the exposed wound, and scoop up some samples. Then it’ll fly home, returning by 2020.

Alas, it is not quite as cool as Nasa’s awesome plan to capture an asteroid and pull it into orbit around the Moon. If we did that, we could send astronauts to it as practice for tricky things like landing on Mars or even distant moons. We might be watching footage of humans setting foot on another tiny alien world as soon as 2021, as long as funding can be found.

Artist's Concept of Hayabusa-2. (Image: Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”