Leicester Involved in Asteroid Mission

Leicester Involved in Asteroid Mission

04/12/2020Written by Malika Andress

Scientists at the University of Leicester are getting ready for Japanese Hayabusa 2 to return to Earth after its mission to asteroid Ryugu.

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Professor John Bridges

Professor John Bridges, based at the Space Research Centre at the University of Leicester, is part of the Mineralogy Team, who will be analysing part of the return sample from this mission.

However, this is not the first time John has been involved, as one of the leading scientists in his field, he has been working on the first Hayabusa craft returned samples from Asteroid Itokawa in 2010.

The Japanese Space Agency JAXA Hayabusa2 spacecraft launched on 3 December 2014 and rendezvoused with near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryūgū on 27 June 2018. It surveyed the asteroid for a year and a half and took samples. It left the asteroid in November 2019 and is expected to return to Earth on 6 December 2020, landing in South Australia to end the six year mission.

Image credit: JAXA/U. Tokyo/Kochi U./Rikkyo U./Nagoya U./Chiba Inst. Tech./Meiji U./U. Aizu/AIST

“Observations in the visible and infrared parts of the spectrum by the Hayabusa2 cameras have revealed some intriguing new complexities about asteroid Ryūgū (‘Dragon’s Palace’).  It seems that the asteroid formed as a spinning rubble pile from previous generations of different asteroidal parent bodies.  Ryugu shows that asteroids have recorded a rich history which probably includes a sort of weathering due to the solar wind and cosmic rays, heating and shock due to meteorite impacts, and spinning to create its now familiar looking equatorial bulge.

Intriguingly, the observations made at Ryūgū suggests that it is not as water-rich as had been expected when it was selected as a target for this mission. By analogy with many carbonaceous  chondrite meteorites – the closet known analogue to C-class asteroids like Ryūgū – it was expected to be rich in water-bearing minerals like clays. Asteroid Bennu, which has been sampled by the NASA Osiris Rex mission, and will bring back samples in 2023, in contrast does seem to be rich in hydrated minerals.

After recovery of the capsule it will be taken to the Sagamihara Campus near Tokyo for opening and the start of our analytical campaign.

Sample Return missions require laboratory techniques capable of analysing minute samples. We will be deploying state of the art electron microscopy, synchrotrons, isotopic techniques and organic analyses. A bit like during the Apollo era of the 1960s and 70s the new generation of sample return missions will drive forward our analytical capabilities in Earth-bound laboratories.”

Ryugu imaged in colour the by ONC-T camera on board of Hayabusa2 CREDIT: ISAS/JAXA

Ryūgū was discovered on 10 May 1999 by astronomers with the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research at the Lincoln Lab’s ETS near Socorro, New Mexico, in the United States. It orbits the Sun every 16 months.

The name refers to Ryūgū (Dragon Palace), a magical underwater palace in a Japanese folktale. In the story, a fisherman travels to the palace on the back of a turtle, and when he returns, he carries with him a mysterious box, much like Hayabusa2 returning with samples.

Hayabusa2, collected samples from Ryūgū by firing a small projectile into the surface, to dislodge the pieces required, however, this did not provide the results the mission scientists expected.

Rather than a top layer being powdery, the mission rovers (it had four) showed a of the asteroid had regolith was centimetre-sized gravel.

Running tests on Earth, the scientists were able to verify that enough samples would be dislodged to be collected by the spacecraft. Satisfied by the results, the actual collection attempt went ahead.

You can still get involved in the mission, by sending your messages of support using the hashtag #HYB2Return.

You can also download (for free) a re-entry AR app on your phone, using the QR code here, allowing you the opportunity to follow the final approach of the capsule, on its journey to the Australian landing site.

If you are living in Australia, you may be able to see the fireball of the capsule re-entry on 06 December. Observing near Coober Pedy is the best location. Look northwest between 03:30 and 04:30 local time to see it pass overhead.

It will be visible as a bright light for around 90 seconds.

Livestream of the event can also be seen on JAXA’s YouTube channel. 

Hayabusa2 Earth Return