It sounds like something out of Star Wars or a 1950’s Ray Bradbury Sci-Fi story, but it’s true. The Japanese have invented, built and now successfully tested (on earth) a space cannon, with the intention of- wait for it- shooting an asteroid.
It’s called the Hayabusa 2 and will be launched into space next year. It’s first target is not just any old asteroid, it will be aiming at asteroid 1999 JU3. The intention is to create a crater for gathering mineral samples.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has reported that the mission “is progressing as planned”, and is still on track to arrive at the asteroid in 2018. The asteroid is in a stable orbit inbetween earth and Mars.
When it arrives the cannon which actually detach from the mothership, where it will travel to the other side of the asteroid before detonating itself. Once in position close to the asteroid, the space cannon will detach itself and remotely fire a 4lb metal projectile into the surface of the miniature planet. The mothercraft will then land on the asteroid and collect samples that have been disturbed from underneath the surface of the asteroid. The previous ship, Hayabusa 1 skimmed material from the surface of an asteroid and successfully returned to earth. This latest project will hopefully expose valuable minerals from inside the asteroid, ones that are usually not available.
“the potential to revolutionise our understanding of pristine materials essential to understanding the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life,”
It’s natural to think of an extension of this project being able to blast open or throw off course any large asteroid that might be heading towards earth. The next potantially world-ending asteroid id expected about 2032.
Unfortunately, the cannon is nowhere near large enough to deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. We’ve only got less than a couple of decades to sort something out for that. Ine idea being considered is a giant catapault in space to launch a large captured asteroid towards any incoming body. Being in space, the velocity of the launched asteroid will remain constant until it impacts aginst the invader. But one problem has been the corrosive effect of space on elastic and rubber. So perhaps we’re back to just building a much bigger space cannon. Hayabusa 3 anyone?