Asteroid Ryugu Might Actually Be a Dead Comet

egion of the highest resolution image. Yellow boxes correspond to the region in Figure 1. (Left) The region is shown on the ONC-T global image of Ryugu. (Right) ONC-W1 image, taken at 70 m height. 2018-09-21 13:02(JST). Credit: JAXA

In 2014, the Japanese Space Agency JAXA launched the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft to visit asteroid Ryugu. It arrived at the asteroid in June 2018 and studied it from orbit for over a year. Hayabusa 2 even dispatched four rovers to the asteroid’s surface. After departing, it flew past Earth in December 2020, dropping off a sample of Ryugu.

Of all the scientific results from that impressive mission, the most interesting one might be this: Asteroid Ryugu might not be an asteroid. It might be the remnant of a comet.

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OSIRIS-REx Did One Last Close Flyby of Asteroid Bennu. It’s Almost Time to Come Home

After more than two years in orbit around asteroid Bennu, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is ready to come home. It’s bringing with it a pristine sample of space rocks that geologists here on Earth are eager to study up close. The sample will arrive in September 2023, but we won’t have to wait nearly that long for new data from OSIRIS-REx. Last week, the probe carried out one final flyby of Bennu, in an effort to photograph the sample collection site. The photographs are being downlinked now, and should be here by midweek.

If you’ve been following the OSIRIS-REx mission, you probably already know why scientists are keen to see these photographs, but if you haven’t, hold on to your hats – it’s a wild story.

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Some of Hayabusa2’s Samples are as Big as a Centimeter

Soil Samples returned by the Hayabusa2 Spacecraft c. JAXA

A fireball hurtled across the sky on December 5th – the sample return capsule from the Hayabusa2 asteroid mission by JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency). The capsule landed in Woomera, a remote location in the Australian Outback. Earlier this month, the capsule’s sample containers revealed fine grain topsoil from asteroid 162173 Ryugu. A second sample container has since been opened that contains chunks up to an entire centimeter in size.

Soil Samples returned by the Hyabusa2 Spacecraft -c JAXA
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Japan’s Hayabusa 2 Probe Drops Off Bits of an Asteroid and Heads for Its Next Target

Hayabusa 2 artwork
An artist's conception shows Hayabusa 2's sample return capsule making its atmospheric re-entry as its mothership flies above. (JAXA Illustration)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe zoomed past Earth on December 5th and dropped off a capsule containing bits of an asteroid, finishing a six-year round trip.

But the mission is far from over: While Hayabusa 2’s parachute-equipped sample capsule descended to the Australian Outback, its mothership set a new course for an encounter with yet another asteroid in 2031.

Hayabusa 2’s prime objective was to deliver bits of Ryugu, an asteroid that’s currently 11.6 million kilometers from Earth. Mission controllers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, cheered and laughed when word came that the capsule had survived atmospheric re-entry.

Imagery captured by tracking cameras — and from the International Space Station — showed the capsule streaking like a fireball across the sky as it decelerated from an initial speed of 43,000 kilometers per hour.

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It’s Time for Hayabusa-2 to Come Home

Artist's impression of the Hayabusa2 taking samples from the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is on its way home. The asteroid-visiting, sample-return mission departed asteroid Ryugu (162173 Ryugu) on Wednesday, beginning its year-long journey back to Earth. And it’s carrying some precious cargo.

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Hayabusa 2 Has Sent its Last Rover to Ryugu

Artist's impression of the Hayabusa2 taking samples from the surface of the asteroid Ryugu. Credit: Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 mission to asteroid Ryugu has reached one of its final milestones, if not its climax. The sample-return spacecraft has launched the Minerva-II2 rover at the asteroid. This is the last of four rovers that Hayabusa 2 is deploying on Ryugu.

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Asteroid Ryugu is a “Fragile Rubble Pile”

The MASCam team behind the MASCOT rover's camera identified two types of rock on Ryugu: Type 1 are dark, irregularly-shaped boulders with crumpled, cauliflower-like surfaces. Type 2 are brighter, with sharp edges, and smooth, fractured surfaces. Image Credit: MASCOT/DLR/JAXA

When Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft arrived at asteroid Ryugu in June 2018, it carried four small rovers with it. Hayabusa 2 is primarily a sample-return mission, but JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) sent rovers along to explore the asteroid’s surface and learn as much as they could from their visit. There’s also no guarantee that the sample return will be successful.

They chose Ryugu because the asteroid is classified as a primitive carbonaceous asteroid. This type of asteroid is a desirable target because it represents the primordial matter that formed the bodies in our Solar System. It’s also pretty close to Earth.

The sample from Ryugu, which will make it to Earth in December 2020, is the big science prize from this mission. Analyzing it in Earth-based laboratories will tell us a lot more than spacecraft instruments can. But the rovers that landed on Ryugu’s surface have already revealed a lot about Ryugu.

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Watch this Amazing Video of Hayabusa 2 Picking Up a Sample from the Surface of Ryugu

A screen shot from JAXA's video showing Hayabusa 2's second sample grabbing touchdown. Image Credit: JAXA

A new video shows Japan’s Hayabusa 2 sample return spacecraft collecting samples from asteroid Ryugu. The spacecraft has been at Ryugu for months now, and it’s all been leading up to this. In the video, you can clearly see airborne asteroid dust and particles swirling around in the low gravity.

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Hayabusa 2 is the First Spacecraft to Sample the Inside of an Asteroid

Hayabusa 2 has collected a sub-surface sample from asteroid Ryugu. Image: JAXA

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft is now the first spacecraft to retrieve a subsurface sample from an asteroid. On July 11th, the spacecraft touched down for a second time on asteroid 162173 Ryugu. This time, the probe retrieved a sample from a crater it excavated with its impactor.

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The Japanese asteroid-hunter had another photo opportunity when it dropped a target marker on asteroid Ryugu

Image taken with Hayabusa2's CAM-H instrument on May 30th, 2019. Credit: JAXA

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency‘s (JAXA) has made some impressive feats in recent years. Roughly one year ago, and following in the footsteps of its predecessor, their Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully rendezvoused with a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) – 162173 Ryugu. Since then, it has been collecting samples from the surface in the hopes of learning more about the formation and evolution of the Solar System.

Just a few months after the spacecraft created an artificial crater with an anti-tank warhead, the spacecraft has once again descended close to the asteroid to drop another target marker. This maker, a reflective sphere that contains the names of people who’ve supported the mission, will provide a visual guide as the spacecraft attempts to collect its second sample of material from the asteroid’s surface.

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