An asteroid researcher collects first samples thought to be rich in organic fertilizers; a Purdue scientist will be among the first to study

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – A fireball went up into the Australian sky in the first week of December, as a Japanese asteroid explorer Hayabusa2 sent a capsule containing pieces of a nearby Ryugu asteroid down to the Earth’s surface.

The capsule and cargo were met by international cheaters, including those of Puritane scientist Michelle Thompson who will be one of the first researchers in the world to study the samples. Thompson, a professor of planetary sciences, was hired to the Hayabusa2 science team to study the composition and molecular structure of materials returned from the asteroid.

Researchers believe that the surface of the Ryugu asteroid contains organic molecules. This is only the second successful return of an asteroid sample to date, and it is the first successful discovery of a carbon-filled asteroid. The first asteroid sample was collected from a stony type asteroid named Itokawa, which was completed by the first researcher Hayabusa in 2010. Both the Ryugu and Itokawa asteroid exploration projects were run by the Japan Aerospace Research Group . In 2023, NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission will return samples from another asteroid thought to be carrying organic molecules.

Why study asteroids? After humans land on men on the moon and rovers on Mars, what is the benefit of visiting the airless structures that appear in disaster movies more often? than the news?

An asteroid study provides valuable information for planetary protection, the collection of potential resources and the future of space exploration, Thompson said.

“Understanding the behavior of asteroids, where they are and where they come from, is crucial for planetary protection,” she said. “We can learn where they are going, what forces are carrying them, what could change their orbit, what they will interfere with in a path that crosses the Earth and what not. ”

Some asteroids may be sources of elements that are inaccessible or readily available on Earth, and while asteroids are incredible targets for permanent colonies, they can be a useful means of space exploration. promote.

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Michelle Thompson, a professor of planetary sciences at Purdue University, will exhibit samples of meteorites from many asteroids found on Earth. She will be one of the first researchers in the world to study samples of the Ryugu asteroid (not pictured) that a Japanese asteroid Hayabusa2 researcher recently returned to Earth. (Photo Purdue University / John Underwood)

“Some near-Earth asteroids have been proposed as targets of human study, not as permanent settlements, but for storage or refueling platforms to aid in longer missions,” Thompson said.

The study of asteroids and other planetary bodies relies heavily on images and readings collected from a distance. Thompson’s research is fundamental in reading data collected from remote sensing technologies.

Thompson studies a process called space-weather, which describes the effect of interplanetary space on the bodies of a planet that does not have a sense of protection. She and her students repeat the harsh conditions of space, such as solar wind and high-speed effects, so that they can correctly identify and understand the chemistry of samples recovered from airless bodies.

Since the surface of an asteroid does not receive weather in the same way as Earth, reproducing these processes in a laboratory is essential to understanding the images and samples returned from asteroids and other airless planetary bodies. .

“Dust particles and energetic ions from the solar wind can alter the chemistry or composition of the surface materials and microstructures at their atomic level. These affect the optical properties we see in data collected from a remote sensing spacecraft, ”said Thompson of the importance of understanding spaceflight. “We cannot interpret the data properly unless we understand this process.”

Air surface change is the focus of the LEAPS laboratory, which Thompson runs in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planning Sciences. Her team is running aerospace experiments relevant to their upcoming study of the Ryugu samples, which will be packaged and cataloged by JAXA before being distributed to the science teams. Thompson said she expects to receive supplies sometime in the next fall.

Thompson is an active researcher on several sample return missions, including other asteroids and the moon. She and her students are preparing to study samples of the asteroid Bennu collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, and she has worked extensively on samples collected from the asokoid Itokawa during the first Hayabusa mission.

Thompson has studied lunar samples from almost every Apollo mission. This includes a project that began last year on a previously unseen subscription sample collected at the Apollo 17 mission, led by Purdue alumnus Eugene Cernan in 1972. Apollo 17 samples were held in storage with the hopes that future research methods and technologies would offer a new perspective on the materials, and they were released as part of NASA’s next-generation Apollo sample analysis program.

Thompson, who worked at NASA before coming to Purdue, has a passion for understanding all aspects of mission design as well as training the next generation of scientists. Earlier this year, she received NASA’s Early Career Fellowship in recognition of her commitment to sharing her knowledge. The money enabled her to purchase state-of-the-art equipment for the LEAPS laboratory and begin to develop a series of training that she hopes to share with researchers across the field.

“We are at a rare time in planetary science at the moment, with samples coming back from two asteroids and another from the moon, as well as examining samples from the 1970s that have not yet been opened,” she said. . “It’s a great time to be in planetary science and even better to do so at Purdue.”

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Author: Christy McCarter, [email protected]

Contact the media: Amy Patterson Neubert, [email protected]

Source: Michelle Thompson, [email protected]

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