On February 21, 2019, Japanese astronauts committed a theft that made history. A Japanese spacecraft boarded an asteroid Ryugu, quickly grabbed a piece of space rock and fled the scene.
The act was captured on camera, and in May this year, scientists from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency released the images, giving us our first close-and-personal encounter with an asteroid surface. As the year draws to a close, researchers around the world are beginning to look forward to getting closer – by analyzing the sample itself.
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The video is one of the treasures collected by a Japanese long-distance sampling spacecraft, Hayabusa2, that spent a long, five-year journey into space before landing on Ryugu. The video shows the moments when Hayabusa2 rubs down on the asteroid, and collects a small sample of the rocky body to bring it back to Earth.
Ryugu is a near-Earth asteroid, potentially dangerous about 0.6 miles in diameter. It is in elliptical orbit around the Sun every 16 months, when it happens to cross Earth and Mars orbits.
As Hayabusa2 landed on the asteroid, the cameras aboard captured the sampling process in detail, revealing the surface disturbances caused by the spacecraft while collecting a sample from Ryugu.
The first results of the mission, based on the video and sample collection, were published in May in the journal Science.
In addition to the stunning photos, the video also revealed new details about Ryugu.
The scientists behind the May study reveal how the thrushes on Hayabusa2 disturbed a coating of delicate dark material that more closely matched the red material on the asteroid’s surface.
Based on what the scientists already know about the different layers that make up Ryugu filters, the video reveals that the color red may be a kind of suntan.
During Ryugu’s orbit around the Sun, the asteroid may have turned slightly towards the bright star for a short time, causing intense solar warming. That would explain the red material on its surface, theorize the scientists.
Interestingly, we will soon know about Ryugu. Hayabusa2 is on its way back to Earth, with the asteroid sample kept away. The spacecraft released a capsule containing the asteroid dust to Earth on Dec. 5. NASA scientists and other researchers could get their hands on some of the precious sample by the end of next year, according to NASA. Once they have the dust in their hands, work can begin to answer some of the most specific questions about how life evolved on Earth.
“What we are trying to do is to better understand how the Earth came to be as it is today,” Jason P. Dworkin, director of the Goddard Astrobiology Research Laboratory, said in a statement. “How, from a gas disk and dust that came together about the sun we created, did we survive on Earth and perhaps elsewhere?”
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