What is happening
The Japanese Space Agency has conducted a preliminary analysis of samples from the 4.6 billion-year-old asteroid Ryugu.
Why it is important
The samples are some of the most primitive materials ever extracted from space and will help us understand the earliest period of our solar system.
Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft, scientists and engineers who took the samples home were greeted with applause. then the ancient rock fragments finally made their way to Earth.
Now, about eighteen months laterand its treasures are subject to full scientific analysis. The Japanese space agency JAXA had an idea that the valuable materials inside the sample capsule of Hayabusa2 would have great scientific value, and preliminary chemical analysis shows how remarkable the agency’s samples are.
In a study published in the journal Science on June 9, JAXA scientists provided the first in-depth assessment of samples taken from Ryugu after they were returned to Earth.
“We found Ryugu to be the newest CI chondrite,” said Shogo Tachibana, JAXA’s lead sample analysis scientist.
This means that the materials obtained from Ryugu are the most primitive materials that humans have ever been able to analyze on Earth. They provide a portal to the very early days of the solar system, when the sun was just a rising star and the planets were just beginning to form. While Thursday’s study is a big step in understanding Ryugu, it’s just the first step in understanding the solar system and where we are.
This is why it is important.
Travel to Dragon Palace
Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission set out in 2014 to sample samples from the asteroid Ryugu, dubbed the “Dragon Palace.”. The asteroid is the most common type C in our solar system and resembles a rotating peak. Its orbit around the Sun exists outside of Mars. Some scientists believe that this type of asteroid brought raw materials to life on Earth, so JAXA wanted to study Ryugu and steal some rocks from its surface.
After a four-year voyage, Hayabusa2 met with a space rock, and then in 2019, the spacecraft made two short touches to the asteroid, lifting the samples up and placing them in a special sample capsule. This sample capsule landed in Australia in 2020, and its valuable cargo has been carefully managed since then.
Two landings on Ryugu revealed 5.4 grams of material from the surface and underground of the asteroid. The material is in the form of small pebbles and rocks, varying in size by about 0.4 inches. The study, released on June 9, took a very small sample to study the chemistry and structure of the asteroid and draw some conclusions about how it formed and evolved over its lifetime – about 2% of the total sample. This required the use of powerful electron microscopes and spectrometers that could provide details about the chemicals present in the object, based on how the object reflected light.
Scientists have concluded that Ryugu was most likely formed after the splitting of a giant cosmic rock in the early solar system. The material was eventually turned into a rotating asteroid known as Ryugu. According to the analysis, this effect occurred about 2 million to 4 million years after the formation of the solar system. Based on the modification of the samples by water, scientists believe that they belong to about 5 million years after the formation of the solar system.
“Everything happened very, very early [in regard to] the formation of the solar system, ”says Tachibana.
Great, huh? But … what does all this mean?
Why meteorites are important
To understand the significance of the patterns, it is better to look at the pieces of rock that fell to the ground. Scientists call them “meteorites.”
Meteorites can be divided into different groups according to their composition and chemistry. The rarest type of meteorite seen by scientists is known as the CI chrondrites – since the 1800s, we have seen only five meteorites of this class fall to Earth. One of the most famous is the fall of Orgueil in France in 1864.
“[U]Unlike other meteorite groups, the chemistry of CI chondrites has not evolved or changed, and they can give us information about the initial composition of the solar system, ”says Ashley King, of the Museum of Natural History in England.
In short, CI chondrites are the most primitive rocks we have ever found. They come from the time when the solar system was just beginning to take shape. But the rocks that bring it to Earth are changed by our atmosphere and our journey to Earth. When they hit the atmosphere, they heat up and new minerals and chemicals are formed, and then when they land, they change as a result of their interaction with moisture and water.
This became a puzzle for meteorologists, scientists studying meteorites, because – until Ryugu – we did not have the ability to know what the chemical composition of the asteroid was. With JAXA’s analysis, everything has changed and some meteorites are flying scientists.
Planetologist Gretchen Benedix notes: “At the moment, I am amazed by this research and find it difficult to translate into simple words how interesting and important it is for such a meteorite source to be available for future research.” Scientist at Curtin University in Western Australia.
To summarize, scientists are now able to study the earliest period of our solar system, and the implications for future research are profound. Think of it this way: JAXA scientists have studied a meteorite that never reached Earth and therefore never changed the conditions on our planet. This is a monumental result.
“Ryugu samples are the most chemically primitive extraterrestrial materials currently available for study and will lead to new leaps in our understanding of the origin and evolution of planetary systems,” King said.
This first article is just the beginning for JAXA scientists. Over the next few months, more details are expected to be revealed about the samples taken from Ryugu, the magnetism of the rock, how it is affected by cosmic air, and its exposure to solar wind and cosmic rays.
But JAXA is not the only one interested in Ryugu. NASA obtained 10% of the samples returned in December 2021 and will conduct its own analysis to compare the findings with its own asteroid sample return mission Osiris-Rex, which visited the asteroid Bennu in 2020..
What awaits scientists to discover? The possibilities are endless. Just this week, JAXA allegedly discovered amino acids in Ryugu, the “building blocks of life.” A complete scientific report on Ryugu’s amino acids is yet to come, but this discovery raises the speculation that organic compounds may have been transported from space to Earth.
As scientists study the rock grains from Ryugu and Bennu, our vague understanding of the earliest time in the history of the solar system will gradually come to the fore. Potentially, it can even reveal where you are we comes from.