Images From Asteroid’s Surface Yield Clues to Its Origin

The image shows the first image acquired by the DLR-developed MASCAM camera system during Hayabusa2’s descent, shortly after separation from the landing module at a height of about 135 feet with a viewing direction towards the south pole. Particularly striking is a huge block near the south pole, which stands out clearly above the horizon line and is named “Otohime Saxum.” It is up to 328 feet tall. (Jaumann et al., Science, 2019)

(CN) – Scientists have landed a small spacecraft on a near-Earth asteroid named Ryugu, retrieving never before seen images of its surface that hold new information about its creation.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, Ralf Jaumann and his colleagues introduce new evidence linking Ryugu to a type of meteorite known to have originated from cataclysmic events.

Ryugu was discovered roughly two decades ago and recently the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) sent out the Hayabusa2 to obtain samples from the asteroid. This spacecraft also carried a lander called the Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout, affectionately known as MASCOT, that took images upon its arrival on the asteroid.

These images allowed researchers to not only calculate the trajectory of its descent, but also showed close-up images of the asteroid’s surface.

It is covered with rocks and boulders that fell into two distinct categories – half of them dark with a rough, crumbly texture and the others bright and elongated with a smooth texture. This observation supports astronomers’ suspicion that Ryugu originated from two parent bodies colliding, breaking apart, and reaccumulating with the two different materials.

The images also showed small, colorful and previously unknown inclusions embedded into many of the rocks. By comparing this data with that from other known types of meteorites, Jaumann and his team found this coloration could be due to the mineral olivine.

The presence of the two types of rock and that of olivine makes Ryugu bear a strong resemblance to a type of meteorite called carbonaceous chondrites – some of the most primitive meteorites known to man.

The most surprising discovery from these images, however, is the fact that although Ryugu is constantly exposed to the elements of space, there is no evidence of dust particles as previously expected. While it could be that they get blown away into space or absorbed by the porous texture of the asteroid, Jaumann suspects there is an unidentified physical mechanism that removes the dust from the surface.

These images bring scientists closer to understanding more about Ryugu’s origins and composition, and uncovering the secrets it may still hold.

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