The Japanese Hayabusa-2 mission and the origins of the solar system

Hayabusa-2, the Japanese Space Exploration Agency’s mission to the Ryugu asteroid, deposited a capsule carrying fragments of asteroid rock at Woomera, South Australia. This was the culmination of a six year project.

The Australian corporate media pounced on this story because of the ‘Aussie connection’. However, that is the least interesting reason for understanding the importance of the Hayabusa-2 mission. The asteroid samples returned by the spacecraft contain clues regarding the origins of life in the universe.

The Hayabusa-2 mission deployed hopping rovers on the asteroid Ryugu. They were able to pierce the surface of the asteroid, and retrieve contents from the underground. This is an extraordinary achievement in itself – no other space agency has been able to accomplish such a scientifically important goal on an asteroid.

First of all, let’s address one misconception that people may have. An asteroid is usually thought of as a lifeless, irregularly-shaped lump of rock, hurtling through space and occasionally crashing into Earth as in the movie Deep Impact. This view only hinders our ability to understand the geological importance of asteroids. Each one, like Ryugu, contains minerals and features from the origins of the solar system.

A near-earth asteroid, Ryugu contains organic compounds and ice, geological features that are remnants from the earliest origins of the solar system. Examining Ryugu’s minerals – contained in the capsule deposited at Woomera – will help scientists unveil vital clues on the formation of the solar system, and perhaps of life itself. Hayabusa-2’s cameras obtained pictures of Ryugu, revealing a surface hit by meteorites and weather-beaten by cosmic rays.

Australia and Japan, while depicted as rivals from media-driven anti-Asian racism, have a long history of scientific cooperation. A Japanese team of scientists and experts were deployed by JAXA – the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency – in South Australia preparing for the return of the Hayabusa-2 cargo.

Earlier, we mentioned that Hayabusa-2 deployed hopping rovers on the surface of the asteroid. These bouncing explorers, equipped with cameras, relayed images of Ryugu. You may see examples of the pictures sent back by the hopping rovers in this NPR article. Asteroids have weak gravity, so keeping movable rovers on the surface of Ryugu presented particular technical challenges.

John Bridges, professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester, explains the following:

Ryugu could tell us a lot about the Solar System’s history. The Earth and the other planets formed from small, rocky bodies in a disk of gas, ice and dust called the solar nebula. Asteroids are the leftovers from this process. While the planets have undergone extensive changes, developing crusts, mantles and cores during their lifetimes, asteroids have not. By studying primitive samples from asteroids, we can therefore crack many secrets about how the solar system formed.

The organic compounds in the Ryugu samples remain unchanged since the earliest ages of the solar system. Planetary bodies such as the Earth went through enormous geological changes, altering the composition of its formative materials.

The asteroid fragments will be shared for analysis between Japanese space agency and NASA. Hayabusa-2 continues its mission, aiming for two more asteroids for research.

There are numerous problems confronting humanity at the moment – climate change, ecological destruction, and the current pandemic, just to name a few. These ecological issues, in combination with socioeconomic inequalities, require urgent attention. Exploring the vastness of outer space may not seem like a priority. However, counterposing scientific ventures would be a colossal mistake.

Space exploration has provided a powerful impetus to develop technologies that we regard as everyday conveniences today. The smartphones we use, satellite navigation – these innovations rely on technology originally developed by space agencies. The camera in your smartphone is using small imaging sensors first created by NASA.

Questions regarding outer space exploration occupy a significant chunk of our attention – landing on and terraforming Mars, space travel, exploring the Moon – among other subjects. These topics inspire generations of students – and adults for that matter – to consider scientific issues in the larger context of human culture and social organisation. While nationally-based space agencies compete to launch and accomplish missions, it is international cooperation that is necessary to understand the results of what we find.

As a follow-up, have a look at what the Hayabusa-2 mission has accomplished.

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