(ORDO NEWS) — Samples from the asteroid Ryugu, which took six years to collect, will provide scientists with unprecedented insights into the formation of the solar system. The first comprehensive analysis revealed the surprising history of this material.
The solar system began to form from dust and gas, which gradually stuck together, forming the Sun, and then planets and satellites.
But tiny bits of this process are left to drift through space like asteroids and comets. Therefore, they are time capsules that preserve the original material from the moment our system was formed.
You can study them when they hit the Earth as meteorites, but, unfortunately, these samples are quickly “contaminated” by terrestrial processes.
The best samples can only be obtained from the source itself. This was the goal of the Hayabusa 2 mission launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2014.
Hayabusa 2 successfully caught up, descended and collected samples from the asteroid Ryugu in 2019. And in December 2020, the device has already delivered them back to Earth. The first comprehensive analysis of this pristine sample is now complete.
Scientists have studied 16 particles from Ryugu and found that it contains the oldest material ever identified, with some grains older than the Sun itself!
While today the asteroid is only about 1 km wide, it is just a fragment of a parent body that probably measured several tens of kilometers in diameter and formed in the outer part of the solar system.
Curiously, the samples showed signs that the body had been saturated with water in the distant past. Radioisotope dating has shown that Ryugu’s parent body was altered by the circulation of water several million years after the birth of the solar system.
“You have to imagine a collection of ice and dust floating in space that turned into a giant ball of mud when the ice was melted by nuclear energy as a result of the decay of radioactive elements that were present in the asteroid when it formed,” said Nicholas Dofas, author of the study.
All of these radioactive elements would have decayed in five million years, and Ryugu’s parent body would have frozen again.
A collision with another object would have thrown its fragments into the inner solar system, where its icy layers would have evaporated, leaving the dry ball of rock and dust that we see today.
The scientists also found primitive organic material in the sample, including amino acids that form proteins. This lends weight to the idea that the ingredients of life could begin to form in space before being brought to Earth by asteroids like Ryugu.
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