Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe is blasting a hole in an asteroid tonight (and that’s awesome)

It’s a big day for space: launches, tests, orbits and now a distant probe is going to shoot an asteroid with its space gun and make a new crater to play in. It’s Hayabusa 2, Japan’s ambitious and so far highly successful sample return mission to an object called Ryugu.

Launched in 2014, Hayabusa 2 has been in the region of Ryugu for several months, carrying out a series of investigations. It has four small landers on board, two of which it dropped off late last year, and which have been hopping happily around the asteroid.

In February the craft itself touched down on the surface, stirring up the dust considerably, but nothing like what will happen when they fire a big old bullet into the surface at 4,400 mph using the Small Carry-on Impactor. Here’s a test of the setup firing into a Ryugu-like substrate in a lab here on Earth:

Now imagine that happening to an asteroid with very little gravity — the dust and flecks are going to fly all over the place. In fact, the robots on the surface have all retreated far away from the impact site so they don’t get showered by debris.

Afterwards — in a few weeks, to be precise — the landers and Hayabusa 2 itself will investigate the brand new crater and the strata of dust and rock that have been exposed. After collecting a few samples, the craft will return home late this year.

This “crater generation” operation will take place later tonight, and images should arrive very shortly afterwards — the team has already posted lots of wonderful imagery from Ryugu (as well as some great kids’ art). In fact, you should be able to follow along more or less in real time below, starting at 6 PM Pacific time:

And if you’re curious how the spacecraft is doing at any time, for instance right now, you can always check in to the Haya2NOW web app, which gives all the relevant details as soon as they’re received. How convenient!