How much do you know about those countless lonely asteroids scattered throughout our universe? Aside from an asteroid impact, causing the chain reaction that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, asteroids are very important to our overall understanding of the universe.
Asteroids give us more insight into the origins of life as well as the origins of our solar system. Even near-earth asteroids could be eventually mined for valuable metals. According to Carol Raymond, deputy principal investigator on NASA's Dawn mission, "The materials in asteroids represent the building blocks of the planets."
Japan's Hayabusa2: Sticking the Landing
Launched by JAXA or the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in December of 2014, the mission aimed to collect samples from the half-a-mile in diameter asteroid. As mentioned above, Ryugu is a carbon-rich rock that could give us more insight into the history of our solar system.
However, there is much more to this story. Last time Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft was in the news is when it had blown a crater in Ryugu back in April. Using a host of explosives and a bullet-like projectile, Hayabusa2 was able to free up a lot of potential rock samples. After successfully landing on the asteroid, the spacecraft collected samples and returned to a safe position above Ryugu.
Hayabusa2 will be making its way back to earth with its collected samples by the end of the year.
Understanding the Mission
So why are we in space shooting asteroids? If you did not know already, Hayabusa2 already had landed briefly on Ryugu back in February of this year, again to collect samples. Yet, these materials have been exposed to the solar system's "weather."
[PPTD] These images were taken immediately after today’s touchdown (Jul 11) with the ONC-W1. First photo was taken at 10:06:32 JST (on-board time) and you can see the gravel flying upwards. Second shot was at 10:08:53 where the darker region near the centre is due to touchdown. pic.twitter.com/6OhrYShz4D— HAYABUSA2@JAXA (@haya2e_jaxa) July 11, 2019
[PPTD] Thank you for your support from all over the world! Everyone in the control room is making a cheerful V-sign for the second touchdown! pic.twitter.com/YUz7sVmQPb— HAYABUSA2@JAXA (@haya2e_jaxa) July 11, 2019
The 6-10 foot deep crater made by Hayabusa2 will literally give researchers an in-depth look at the asteroid as well as offer clues to how other potential asteroids like Ryugu react to being struck by objects.
The asteroid is also special because it is a carbonaceous, asteroid. This means that the asteroid is full of carbon molecules known as organics; amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Asteroids like these could have transported the necessary building blocks on Earth that led to life.
You did it!— NASA's OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) July 11, 2019
Congratulations to the entire Hayabusa2 team from all of us at OSIRIS-REx. pic.twitter.com/WEstYDid9W
The landing was both short and quick but was risky. Mission managers took a good amount of time assessing the risk of landing Hayabusa2 on the asteroid again.
More space agencies, including NASA, are planning missions like these in the near future.