Japan’s Hayabusa2 space probe has successfully created a man-made crater on an asteroid that altered the body’s terrain in a historical first, the country’s space agency said Thursday.
Hayabusa2 had shot a projectile at the Ryugu asteroid around 340 million kilometers from Earth as part of the probe’s mission to explore the origin of life and the evolution of the solar system.
“The asteroid’s terrain has clearly been altered,” said Yuichi Tsuda, an associate professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
The probe photographed the area hit by the projectile from a distance of 1.7 km, according to JAXA, which compared images of the asteroid’s surface before and after the shooting of the metal bullet, and determined the presence of a man-made crater of about 10 meters across.
Rocks had been moved and dislodged from their previous location, while there was a dark area of about 40 meters in length on the surface, considered to be debris created from the impact.
Hayabusa2, which began its descent toward the asteroid Wednesday afternoon, captured images of its surface to determine the existence of the crater after it successfully shot a metal projectile at Ryugu on April 5 in an experiment deemed the first of its kind.
Hayabusa2 shot a copper “impact head” at Ryugu. The agency confirmed a burst of debris caused by the collision.
Although the initial plan was to focus within 200 meters of the initial target, the team said they had hit within 10 to 20 meters of it.
“There was a very high level of accuracy,” Tsuda said. “We were able to create a crater in the area we had aimed for.”
The team will continue to analyze the results and determine whether there was an appropriate area on Ryugu’s surface they could land the space probe on in order to collect a sample of rocks from the asteroid.
Launched in December 2014 from the Tanegashima Space Center in southwestern Japan, Hayabusa2 reached Ryugu last June.
It touched down in February to collect surface samples and found hydrated minerals that will help scientists determine whether asteroids brought water to Earth as hypothesized.
Hayabusa2 is due to return to Earth in 2020, according to JAXA.
Asteroids like Ryugu are often likened to fossils holding the preserved traces of the time when the solar system was born. But the effects of the solar wind have weathered Ryugu’s surface, making it necessary to dig deep to collect such materials.