Hayabusa2 has effectively shot a hole into the space rock Ryugu. On April 25 Japan time, the spacecraft flew over the spot where it had dropped a shot, three weeks earlier and took photos of the impact. Let’s know more about this amazing achievement by Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency, how and why the Hayabusa2 made a crater in asteroid Ryugu.
The universe is a tantalizing realm of billowing galaxies, terrorizing black holes, mysterious planets, and then we get to asteroids. These lone grey worlds seem to have all the hype right now and, if we have so much going on in the universe, why are we so focused on sending spacecraft to these drifting rocks? I mean they are not exactly easy to explore. Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency learned that the literal “hard way” when their spacecraft, Hayabusa2, had to launch a “bullet” into the rocky surface of asteroid Ryugu. (Of course, it was for data collecting purposes) but it was never supposed to be that way.
Asteroid Ryugu (162173 Ryugu), provisional designation 1999 JU₃, is a near-Earth object and a potentially dangerous asteroid of the Apollo group. In diameter, it measures approximately 1 kilometer and is a dark object of the rare spectral type Cg, with qualities of both a C-type asteroid and a G-type asteroid.
How they did it?
JAXA scientists anticipated the asteroid to have regolith, or a powdery surface of pulverized material of ice, and dust. This would be easy for Hayabusa2 to collect a sample of and add to the regolith material that was brought back from asteroid Itokawa on the first Hayabusa mission. But upon arrival, they were met with the opposite; a graveled hard terrain. With some quick thinking, scientists made adjustments to their collection tactics before our spacecraft Hayabusa2 made its landing. And in doing so, here on earth, they entirely replicated the surface of an asteroid and shot it with a copy of their sampling instrument.
All their testing proved successful when, on February 22nd, 2019 the spacecraft blasted the surface of Ryugu, collecting a piece of the asteroid, which is now is on its way back to us. We expect Hayabusa2’s valiant return in 2020. But that’s not the only sample we are expecting to arrive at Earth in the coming years. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is on a mission as well, to investigate another asteroid named Bennu.
Also Read: The Asteroid Bennu Keeps Spinning Faster
Scientists recently discovered by chance that this is a rare class of asteroid, which ejects its own mass into space leaving a trail of tinier rocks in its wake. But Hayabusa2 and Osiris-rex didn’t travel so far to check if asteroids are bullet-proof and watch them throw up. I mean they did, but more importantly, NASA says that asteroids are time capsules of our solar system. These investigative missions are a way to unravel a few mysteries we still have about how it all formed and how we got here.
Why scientists are interested in asteroids?
Like one of the biggest asteroids may have delivered the elements of life to Earth. Scientists believe that asteroids like Bennu which are carbon-rich collided with our planet during its formative years. And while the rocks didn’t have oceans on them, they could have had water molecules lurking within its mineral structure and helped begin the vast life we now know and love. There is also the idea that while earth might have been given life from an asteroid, they may have also supplied the foundations for the planets themselves.
In the early beginnings of our solar system, there were just tiny particles of dust, made of rock, metal, and ice swirling around our young Sun. But as time passed some bits fell into the sun and others stuck together; creating asteroids, but maybe also getting bigger into planetary bodies. We have evidence that previous asteroids we’ve visited with NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, Vesta and Ceres, were internally layered with materials, with the core being the densest part. Indicating both asteroids were growing to be planets but they never gathered enough material to do so.
Also Read: All About Oumuamua
So, an asteroid could be a leftover relic from that early evolution period of our solar system that we are still trying to figure out. But now that I have explained some ways asteroids are awesome, there is always a little disclaimer and this one is that asteroids can be hazardous to earth. We actually have a program called the Planetary Defense Coordination Office and they use a collection of instruments in the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program to keep tabs on any and all asteroids that flyby or enter our atmosphere. NASA is even working on a redirect mission called DART. And emerging research like this simulation from John Hopkins University shows that it’s much more difficult to destroy an asteroid than we previously thought. This all may be new to us, but we have actually been hunting asteroids for a while now.
Back in the early 2000s, NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker was the first spacecraft to orbit and land on an asteroid. Now missions like this are standard when going to small bodies with OSIRIS REx, Hayabusa1 and 2, Rosetta/Philae, and New Horizons. And they have taught us so much already. Hayabusa2, although not back yet with its sample, has already detected that the Ryugu asteroid is drier than anticipated and that it’s quite young. Only around 100 million years old. This suggests that wherever it stemmed from was probably devoid of water, too. Which might change our current understanding of what the universe looked like 100 million years ago. And OSIRIS RE-x, remember lucked out with Bennu being an “active asteroid.”
What is in store for the future?
Out of the 8,000 asteroids discovered, there have been just 12 observed releasing their material into space. So, all observations from Bennu are valuable and it has plenty of time to prepare for its sample mission in July 2020. But what is in store for the future? Let me introduce Mission Psyche. NASA wants to send a spacecraft, for the first time, to a nearly entirely metal asteroid named “Psyche”. The way Hayabusa2 made a crater in Asteroid Ryugu was phenomenal. The more future missions with advanced technology are going to mesmerize us.
Psyche is special because it might be a piece of a metallic core that’s similar to Earth’s that we can actually study. Earth’s core is way too hot to investigate and now it’s our opportunity to do so and understand how Earth and other rocky planets formed. Plus, the center of our magnetic field is our metallic core. So, this might help us understand that too. NASA’s estimated arrival to Psyche will be in 2026. Floating space rocks such as asteroids are unique to our understanding of our universe. They may hold the key answers to our burning questions and all we have to do is capture them. One spacecraft at a time.
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