Focus-Science and Technology - - DISCOVERIES -

Well, this rocks! The Ja­pan Aero­space Ex­plo­ration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 probe has snapped this stun­ning shot of as­ter­oid 162173 Ryugu from just 6km above the as­ter­oid’s sur­face – an im­por­tant mile­stone in the probe’s over­all mis­sion.

As out­lined in last month’s BBC Fo­cus (Au­gust, p40), Hayabusa2’s even­tual goal is to bring back rock sam­ples from Ryugu, as its pre­de­ces­sor the Hayabusa probe did from the Itokawa as­ter­oid in 2010. Once re­turned to Earth, these sam­ples will be stud­ied by JAXA sci­en­tists with a view to dis­cov­er­ing more about both as­ter­oids’ phys­i­cal make-up – knowl­edge that would be vi­tal should hu­mankind need to de­flect any as­ter­oid threat­en­ing to col­lide with our planet in the fu­ture – and their chem­istry.

As­ter­oids are be­lieved to have de­liv­ered many of the chem­i­cals needed for life to form, such as amino acids and the nu­cleo­tides that make up our DNA, to the young Earth. So far, how­ever, our knowl­edge of the chem­istry of an as­ter­oid’s sur­face is largely de­rived from study­ing me­te­orites – as­ter­oid frag­ments which have landed upon the Earth, which makes it dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine if they have been con­tam­i­nated with ma­te­rial af­ter crash­ing down to the sur­face. Study­ing as­ter­oid sam­ples straight from the source, such as those Hayabusa2 will bring back, will give sci­en­tists a much clearer pic­ture.

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