Mankind continues making history as we explore the vastness, not of space, but our solar system. Before we venture out beyond the limits of our star system, we must explore our neighborhood, mapping the planets and moons of our solar system. But in addition to those cosmic bodies, we must study and survey much smaller things like asteroids and comets.
And that’s precise that Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission is currently doing as it explores the surface and composition of asteroid Ryugu, located around 300 million kilometers away.
The Hayabusa2 mission is JAXA’s asteroid sample-return mission launched in December of 2014. Its spacecraft entered into orbit around asteroid 162173 Ryugu on 27 June 2018.
Everything that followed was history.
In September of 2018, the spacecraft launches two of its rovers, Rover-1A and Rover-1B onto the surface of the asteroid, from an altitude of around 55 meters.
In October, the Japanese spacecraft made history once again as it launched the MASCOT landing Module onto the asteroid’s surface from an altitude of around 41 meters. The landing module struck the surface of the asteroid bouncing around 17 meters on the surface, before eventually being stuck between rocks.
But that was not the end of the MASCOT landing module. MASCOT stands for Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout.
According to reports by JAXA and follow up studies, the landing module was able to flip sides and take some incredible photographs of Ryugu’s surface and rocks, both in the 6-minute descent and during the 17 hours it was on the surface before its batteries eventually ran out of juice.
On February 21, 2019, the first sample retrieval mission took place. A few months later, in April of 2019, the Japanese spacecraft fired an impactor at the asteroid, eventually creating an artificial crater on the surface of Ryugu.
In July of 2019, the spacecraft managed to lower to the surface, land or a few seconds and recover some of the samples that were brought up to the asteroid’ surface after the impactor exploded on the asteroid.
Now, scientists have published these images saying they could have interesting implications in our understanding of asteroids and the solar system in general.
As noted by experts, the surface of Ryugu closely resembles meteorites found on Earth known as carbonaceous chondrites.
Scientists analyzed the images snapped by MASCOT, desinged by the German Aerospace Center, revealing important, unprecedented clues published in a paper in the journal Science.
“What we have from these images is really knowing how the rocks and material are distributed on the surface of this asteroid, what the weathering history of this stuff is, and the geologic context,” Ralf Jaumann, the study author revealed in an interview with Gizmodo.
“It’s the first information on this kind of material in its original environment.”
The images snapped by MASCOT revealed the existence of a plethora of rocks on the surface of the asteroid, among which dark cauliflower-like crumbly rocks and brighter, smoother rocks stood out.,
But in the sea of rocks, the images of MASCOT also reveal an important clue; there seemed to be no visible traces of dust on the surface, which is indicative of a possible dust-removing process on the asteroid we are unaware of, which either sucks the dust into the asteroid, or blasts it out into space.
As revealed in the paper published in Science, some of the rocks on the surface of the asteroid appear to have birther parts on them, reminiscent of inclusions of a different, hitherto unknown material.
Precisely those inclusions on the rocks ar what excited experts. Their appearance is bluish and reddish, similar in size to the inclusions seen in carbonaceous chondrites found on Earth.
“This is the first time ever that we’ve seen a boulder of something that ends up passing through the atmosphere, something we have in museums and laboratories all around the world,” Kerri Donaldson Hanna, a planetary geologist and assistant professor at the University of Central Florida who was not involved in this study, explained Gizmodo.
The existence of the inclusion on Ryugu’s rocks points to a direct link between rocks on Earth and rocks in space.