The Japanese space mission Hayabusa 2 continues to surprise us. This time with an unprecedented view of rocks that are located on the surface of asteroid Ryugu and closely resemble meteorites that hit Earth and the pictures captured are the Closest Photo Of An Asteroid ever.
On October 3, 2018, the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft launched a landing module to the surface of the Ryugu asteroid from 41 meters high. The MASCOT module struck a rock and bounced 17 meters along the surface of the asteroid before staying face down in a hole.
But that was not the end for MASCOT. The landing module was able to turn around and take some incredible images of the Ryugu rocks, both in the 6-minute descent and during the 17 hours it was on the surface before its batteries ran out. Scientists have published these images today that could have very interesting implications. The surface closely resembles meteorites found on Earth known as carbonaceous chondrites.
“What we learned from these images is how rocks and material are distributed on the surface of the asteroid, what is the history of its weathering and geological context,” explained Gizmodo Ralf Jaumann, lead author of the study. «It is the first information about this type of material in its original environment».
The images revealed different types of rocks on Ryugu’s surface, including dark rocks, crumbled as cauliflowers, and brighter and smoother rocks, all between a few centimeters to tens of meters wide. But there seemed to be no visible dust; This suggests that there must be some process to remove dust that causes it to be lost in space or absorbed more deeply into the asteroid. Seen up close, these rocks seem to contain bright parts, inlays of some different material, according to the article published in Science.
Those inlays are exciting: they look bluish and reddish, Jaumann said, and they seem to be similar in size to the inlays found in the carbonaceous chondrites found on Earth. That is important.
“It’s the first time we see a rock of something that ends up going through the atmosphere, something we have in museums and laboratories around the world,” said Kerri Donaldson Hanna, a planetary geologist and assistant professor at the University of Central Florida. It would be a direct link between the rocks on Earth and the rocks in space.
But there is still a mysterious element. Neyda Abreu, associate professor of geosciences and mathematics at Penn State DuBois, said it is still unclear which of the types of carbonaceous chondrites Ryugu would become if it entered Earth’s atmosphere. Expect to see more data soon, such as the real abundance of inlays on these rocks. Ryugu may not match exactly any of the carbonaceous chondrites in our collections. “Having something we haven’t seen before is always exciting,” he said.
There is something more to this mission than incredible images. The ultimate goal of Hayabusa 2 is to collect Ryugu material and bring it back to Earth, where scientists can closely study pieces of real asteroids, mostly unaltered. According to its composition, Ryugu could contain some of the oldest matter in the solar system, which dates back to the days when planets formed for the first time.
Hayabusa 2 will return to Earth at the end of next year.