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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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

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