Arizona Scientists Will Soon Analyze JAXA Asteroid Sample

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Wednesday, December 9, 2020 - 6:39pm

Audio icon Download mp3 (1.19 MB)

Asteroid Ryugu from Hayabusa 2
The asteroid Ryugu from Hayabusa 2.

On Sunday, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) retrieved a sample taken by its Hayabusa 2 spacecraft from the asteroid Ryugu, 186 million miles away. KJZZ's Arizona Science Desk spoke to one Arizona scientist involved in the analysis of the first truly substantial asteroid sample. 

Just as a connoisseur can detect the effects of a grape's environs in a glass of wine, chemists like Arizona State University's Meenakshi Wadhwa hope to detect the history and environment of asteroid 162173 Ryugu.

Their results should reflect conditions in the nascent solar system 4.6 billion years ago, before heat and pressure began altering them.

Beyond providing "notes" of water and "hints" of amino acids, the isotopic ingredients also can act as built-in clocks, not unlike carbon dating on Earth.

"Those are the types of clocks that we hope to utilize and really learn something about — when this asteroid formed, what types of materials make up its asteroidal material — and learn something about the conditions and the environment in the early history of the solar system," said Wadhwa, who directs ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Following its 2014 launch and nearly 3.3-billion-mile circuitous trip to Ryugu, Hayabusa 2 spent 18 months orbiting the diamond-shaped rubble pile, making observations and searching for safe sampling sites.

The craft deployed several mini-rovers and made two touch-and-go sampling sorties before beginning its journey back to Earth in November 2019.

JAXA retrieved the intact return capsule on Dec. 6, following a tracking beacon to where the small container had touched down in the desert sands of Woomera in South Australia.

Wadhwa looks forward to comparing the results with samples from Bennu, another carbon-rich asteroid, when the University of Arizona-led OSIRIS-REx mission returns with them in September of 2023.

Together with dust gathered from asteroid Itokawa by the embattled first Hayabusa mission, the Ryugu and Bennu samples will help scientist understand the origins of the solar system, and perhaps of life on Earth.

"Understanding the history of volatiles and organics on our own planet is sort of the ultimate goal, and Ryugu is one piece of the puzzle that helps us get there," said Wadhwa.