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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First The Dress, now The Legs: Why is the internet so obsessed with optical illusions?

Ever since The Dress, optical illusions have dominated our feeds and brains. What does this tell us about 21st-century society?

Are these legs shiny and oily, or are they legs with white paint on them? That’s the first question. The second question is: why do we care? Ever since the fateful first light of 25 February 2015, optical illusions have become the internet’s currency. “Is this dress white and gold or black and blue?” whispered the world wide web on that day, paving the way for our news sources to be replaced by a constantly updating feed of hidden cigars in brick walls, phones concealed in carpets, and a lonely Cheese & Onion Bake secreted in some Steak Bakes.

Today, The Dress has been usurped by The Legs. Within the last few hours, news stories on The Telegraph, Metro, Mashable, Buzzfeed and The Independent’s Indy100 have popped up about a tweet from Twitter user @kingkayden, who posted a picture of legs-splattered-with-white-paint-that-sort-of-look-like-legs-splattered-with-oil. No one on social media can shut up about it, and – aside from the fact that anything, absolutely anything, which distracts us from Brexit will do – it’s a mystery why.

“Optical illusions have always been very popular because they challenge the basic notion that we are able to see what is right in front of our eyes,” says Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, author, and owner of the YouTube channel Quirkology, which is full of optical illusions and tricks. “In fact, perception is constructive and our brains are constantly making guesses about what is happening around us. But it doesn't feel like that.

“Illusions show us that we are not really seeing the world as it is and I think people find that fascinating. The web just allows these images and videos to be shared more quickly than ever before.”

It’s a fascinating explanation, but there are also much more cynical tricks at play. News websites deliberately play on this basic psychological love of optical illusions to ensure that they spread online and therefore generate clicks.

“If you sell the story on social channels as a challenge it’s more likely to perform well,” explains a writer for a popular viral news website who wishes to remain anonymous. “I honestly think people like the feeling that they’re intelligent or have completed a challenge simply because they can see the reasoning behind why a certain illusion works.”

Although the writer, understandably, doesn’t want to share the number of clicks an average optical illusion story gets, they assure me that they are a huge traffic driver. “I think there’s something to be said for optical illusions stories being entertainment as news – they’re innocuous pieces which pretend to teach you something about the way your eyes and brain work, but actually you’re just clicking on it because you think you know what the trick will be. Of course this is a fallacy, but it’s one that works for everyone – the ‘news’ website gets traffic, the people get entertained,” they say.

“That it’s become such a success story for viral news outlets is more concerning – the traffic these stories generate mean they often supersede actual news in terms or priority, even if the news is thoroughly entertaining. This is where I think we hit murky waters if we attempt to define our product as 'news'.”

It's true that there's room on the internet for everything and everyone, and optical illusions shouldn't disappear from our hearts and feeds, but it is fair to be worried about their prevalence online. When news websites sell stories as something “Only 2 per cent of people can see!!!”, we are simultaneously dumbing down and pretending we are smart. 

Besides, the legs clearly have white paint on them.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.