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.

Photo: Getty
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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.