Washington, June 12 (ANI): Japanese scientists have announced that a 1,124-pound (510-kilogram) space probe will "collide" with our home planet in June 2010 to simulate an approaching asteroid.
According to a report in National Geographic News, the Hayabusa spacecraft is currently on its way back to Earth after a successful mission that landed on and hopefully collected samples from the asteroid Itokawa.
Potential samples will be aboard a heat-resistant capsule that will separate from Hayabusa shortly before re-entry into Earth's atmosphere so they can be recovered.
But, experts say the main body of the craft will most likely disintegrate during the trip through Earth's atmosphere.
Although the plan was not part of Hayabusa's original mission, scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) recently decided to make the most of the doomed probe's return.
"Even though Hayabusa is not actually an asteroid, it will be on a path that will cause it to collide with the Earth in the same way as an asteroid," said JAXA spokesperson Akinori Hashimoto.
"We will monitor its movements, and the data will enable us to accurately predict the future paths of asteroids that are on course to come close to the Earth," he added.
While other space agencies have programs for tracking asteroids that might hit Earth, JAXA doesn't yet have the ability to monitor these so-called near-Earth asteroids.
So, a team of researchers headed by Makoto Yoshikawa has developed a prototype system to calculate the trajectory, time, speed, and likelihood of an asteroid impact.
Hayabusa's return to Earth will be easy to track because they will have months of advance warning and plenty of information on the craft's exact size and flight path.
The event therefore provides the team with a chance to fine-tune their asteroid-tracking calculations.
"It is very important that we develop accurate ways to predict where asteroids are going to strike, because even small ones can cause a great deal of damage," Hashimoto said.
The Japanese agency will get international help tracking Hayabusa's re-entry, noted Donald K. Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program based in Pasadena, California.
"The entrance of the Hayabusa spacecraft into the Earth's atmosphere will be tracked before entry by ground-based optical telescopes in an effort to verify the software that has recently been developed by JAXA," he said.
In addition, ground-based telescopes around the world will watch for the sample-return capsule to help ensure its safe recovery. (ANI)