On December 5, 2020, the Japanese Aviation Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa 2 mission sent home a sample capsule containing debris from the near-Earth asteroid (NEA) 162173 Ryugu. It was the culmination of the first six years of space probe, launched in December 2014 and arranged with Ryugu in June 2018. As the probe hits its new targets, scientists will be analyzing the Ryugu monster.
One thing they noticed immediately after opening the shell on Monday (December 21)st) was the black sandy substance that lined the capsule’s outer shell. According to a statement issued by JAXA, the black sand material originated from the surface of Ryugu. Considering what is inside the sample room A, it appears that the amount of material obtained by Hayabusa 2 is more substantial than previously thought.
This discovery comes just a week after the mission’s return capsule returned to Earth. It and the sample it contains were recovered on December 6, 2020 in Woomera, Australia, after entering the atmosphere and creating a clear streak in the sky. By December 8, the capsule was delivered to the JAXA Sagamihara campus, where technicians began the process of carefully removing the sample.
On December 14de, the agency confirmed in a statement that a sample of black sand grains derived from the asteroid was found in the sample container. They apparently hooked up to the entrance of the sample catcher, the container in which the samples were stored. JAXA also released a photo of what the soot material looks like (shown above). As they said:
“JAXA has confirmed that samples from the asteroid Ryugu are in the sample container. We were able to confirm black, sandy particles believed to be from the asteroid Ryugu. We will continue our work to open the sample catcher in the sample container. Extraction of the sample and its analysis will be done.‘
A day later, JAXA released two statements. The first announced confirmation that the samples obtained were indeed from the asteroid Ryugu. The second statement shared the results of an analysis performed on gas also present in sample container A. After conducting mass spectrometry tests at the Quick Look Facility (QLF) – established on December 7de, 2020 at the Woomera Local Headquarters – JAXA has confirmed that the gas comes from the asteroid.
To confirm the initial results, a similar analysis was done on December 10 at the Extraterrestrial Sample Recovery Center (ESCuC) on the JAXA Sagamihara campus.de and 11de. These tests yielded the same result, suggesting that the gases are indeed the result of material obtained as part of the Ryugu sample that sublimes during transport back to Earth.
This is the first time that a sample return includes material from deep inside a deep space object, not to mention material from the object that was in a gaseous state. JAXA also indicated in their second statement that the analysis team will examine the gaseous sample and perform a detailed analysis of the molecular and isotopic composition of the collected gas. ‘
Meanwhile, JAXA will ‘continue to open sample rooms B and C in the sample container, and the sample will be removed and analyzed by the curatorial group and initial analysis team’, they said. These samples contained both surface dust and pristine material from below the surface that was kicked up by an impact shot from the probe (which was essentially an anti-tank warhead).
While in orbit around Ryugu, Hayabusa 2 also deployed four small rovers – including MASCOT and Minerva-II – to the surface of the asteroid to investigate and analyze the geological context of the collected samples. Due to the minimal gravity and extremely uneven surfaces, these robbers are designed to jump around rather than relying on legs, wheels or tread.
These examples are our first look at a monster return mission that was six years in the making and the successor to the Hayabusa mission – which met with the asteroid Itokawa in September 2005 and returned a monster to Earth by June 2010. The purpose of these missions is then and now to study the excess of the formation of the solar system (which asteroids actually are).
In addition to revealing things about the earliest periods of the solar system, the surface and inside of these asteroids are also a record of subsequent evolution over the past 4.5 billion years. To get samples from Ryugu, Hayabusa 2 had to travel about 300 km (200 million miles) from Earth to meet with the NEA Ryugu as it goes beyond Earth’s orbit.
Once all the samples of Hayabusa 2 are removed and analyzed, half of them will be shared between JAXA, NASA and other international organizations. The rest will be saved for future study, as technological advances enable more detailed analyzes and studies. Meanwhile, Hayabusa 2 is now moving on to its next targets as part of its mission expansion.
This extension was granted in September 2020 to include the toluene-rich (red-colored) asteroid 2001 CC21 and the water-rich NEA 1998 KY.26, which apparently consists of material from multiple asteroids that have collided in the past. The probe will present these asteroids in July 2026 and July 2031, respectively.
In addition to revealing things about the history of our solar system, these icy asteroids can tell us how water was distributed under the planets billions of years ago (making life possible)!
Further reading: Phys.org, JAXA