Hayabusa-2 on display at JAXA’s facility in Sagamihara, suburban Tokyo during its unveiling on 31 August, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Japan readies space probe for mission to chase asteroid and shoot it with a cannon

Following on from the mixed success of the ambitious Hayabusa-1 mission, Japanese space scientists are almost ready to try again at hunting an asteroid.

While most of the headlines may be going to the European Space Agency's Rosetta probe right now - it being the first craft to enter into orbit around a comet - there are some other impressive space missions in the pipeline which shouldn't be forgotten. One of these was unveiled this week by the Japanese space agency, Jaxa - the asteroid-hunting Hayabusa-2 probe.

When Hayabusa-2 launches in November or December of this year it will begin a near-four year voyage to asteroid 1999 JU3, where it will then spend 18 months surveying the surface and running a series of experiments. By far the most audacious of these will be the "explosively-formed penetrator", which is a sciencey way of saying that missions planners are going to fire a 30cm copper ball from an on-board cannon at the asteroid's surface. The "bullet" is planned to have a relative velocity of roughly 2km/s, or around six times faster than a bullet travels when fired from a handgun - though this explanatory video from Jaxa appears somewhat lethargic by comparison:

The reason scientists want to shoot an asteroid is quite simple - dust from the crater the bullet leaves will reach escape velocity, creating a cloud of debris that Hayabusa-2 can then float through and collect samples from. (Though, just to be safe, the probe will sneak around to the other side of the asteroid in the time it takes for the bullet to reach the surface, just to avoid any debris that comes up at a dangerous speed.) Hayabusa-2 will then return to Earth by 2020, where that dust - containing, it is hoped, carbon, water and other minerals - will be studied for clues as to the nature of the early Solar System, and how life on Earth may have originated.

Besides the cannon, Hayabusa-2 will also carry four different landers. One, the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (Mascot), has been built by the French and German space agencies, is essentially a small laboratory in a box which will be able to take measurements of the conditions on the asteroid's surface for 16 hours after landing. Rather wonderfully, it will be able to "hop" twice using small feet before its batteries run out, tripling the positions on the asteroid's surface it can gather data from. Hayabusa-2 will also carry three Micro/Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid (Minerva-II) landers, more primitive rovers that should also hop languidly across the asteroid's surface, beaming back video footage to Earth and taking measurements. There's something quite beautiful about the idea of a quartet of bouncing robots exploring the surface of a tiny alien world.

In this sense Hayabusa-2 is a bigger, more ambitious version of Hayabusa-1, which only carried one Minerva rover when it arrived at the asteroid Itokawa in 2005. That mission was the first to rendezvous with an asteroid, land, collect samples and then return to Earth, but it was a mission threatened multiple times with failure. Budget cuts pushed back its launch and meant that Nasa couldn't provide it with a lander, a solar flare damaged its solar panels, internal mechanical faults threatened its ability to steer, and at several points scientists lost contact with it. It very nearly didn't have the ability to return to Earth, and, perhaps most tragically, its Minerva hopper was released at the wrong time - it missed the asteroid, floating away into space.

However, the samples that Hayabusa-1 did manage to retrieve were of immense scientific importance (once they'd been recovered from the Australian outback) - and the mission was seen as a source of national pride in Japan, becoming the subject of movies and toys. Reporting on the unveiling this week, the Japan Times quotes mission leader Hitoshi Kuninaka as "grateful" that the new probe is finally complete, and hopeful that, this time, nothing goes wrong. “Of course, I hope things will go smoothly. We have had many difficulties in the process of developing the new asteroid probe. Space is never an easy place.”

Impactors like Hayabusa-2 are not new - Nasa's Deep Impact probe used a projectile in 2005 to stir up a cloud of debris it could then fly through and analyse - but the scale of the mission's ambition is uniquely large. It will briefly appear in the news again when it launches later this year, but the thing about probes like this - as we're seeing with Rosetta - is that they're investments which generate their own wonderful form of interest. Rosetta took ten years to reach its comet, making it almost as old as Hayabusa-1, but when it did remind of us of its lonely voyage it was with spectacular, gorgeous photographs. 2017 should hopefully bring us all another set of gifts.

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.”