Hayabusa-2 on display at JAXA’s facility in Sagamihara, suburban Tokyo during its unveiling on 31 August, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why is the UK banning laptops on flights from the Middle East?

Critics are questioning why the security measure only applies to airlines coming from the Middle East. 

The UK has just announced a ban on electronic devices in carry-on luggage on flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The ban is effective immediately.

The restrictions on devices such as laptops, tablets, DVD players, and some large phones follow in footsteps of a US ban affecting eight countries and nine airlines announced late Monday evening. Devices measuring more than 16cm in length, 9.3cm in width, or 1.5cm in depth will need to be checked-in to hold luggage. 

Why?

The US Department from Homeland Security cited "the 2015 airliner downing in Egypt; the 2016 attempted airliner downing in Somalia; and the 2016 armed attacks against airports in Brussels and Istanbul" as evidence that terrorist organisations are smuggling explosives inside electronic devices. A spokesperson from Number 10 stated that the UK have been "in close touch" with the US during the decision-making process.

Why now?

A government spokesperson says the restrictions have been implemented after Theresa May met with security officials this morning, after chairing several similar meetings over "the last few weeks". It is likely that a specific security report inspired the ban, though no details on this have been made available.

Which airlines are affected by the UK ban? 

The UK airlines which are affected are : British Airways, EasyJet, Jet2.com, Monarch, Thomas Cook, and Thomson

Overseas airlines affected are: Turkish Airlines, Pegasus Airways, Atlas-Global Airlines, Middle East Airlines, Egyptair, Royal Jordanian, Tunis Air, Saudia

Why predominantly Middle Eastern countries and airlines? 

It is not apparent why a measure ostensibly about safety has not been implemented universally, as with the liquids ban. If the measure was truly about security - and not simply security theatre - it would make sense for something that is considered dangerous by security experts to be banned worldwide.

So what really might be behind it? 

Apart from good old fashioned Islamophobia, Henry Farrell speculates in the Washington Post that Trump is attempting to bolster business for US airlines. Unlike in the UK, the US ban affects specific airlines, not just countries, meaning that US airlines not implementing the restrictions will gain new customers. 

As for the UK, Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport said the government are "working with the aviation industry to minimise any impact". It is possible that the government recieved a credible security threat and are attempting to implement measures that don't affect the majority of Britons. 

But will these measures be effective?

Critics note that any potential terrorists can merely change flight in a different country, or depart from a different country in the first place. 

Experts also argue that placing lithium batteries in checked backage is also dangerous, as they are a fire hazard. 

Evan Hill, a prominent writer about the Middle East, has also stated that the measures will put journalists' personal and private information at risk, and therefore hinder reporting.