NASA studies the Ryugu asteroid sample collected by Japan’s Hayabusa 2 in the New Astronomical Materials Research Laboratory


View of the asteroid Ryugu from Hayabusa 2. Credit: JAXA, University of Tokyo and collaborators

Just weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft grabbed successful samples of the asteroid Bennu by touch and going, researchers at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston are looking to receive a sample of the Ryuju asteroid via the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.JaxaThe Hayabusa2 spacecraft.

On Sunday, December 6, Hayabusa2 delivered a sample of material from the asteroid Ryugu to Earth. Thanks to an agreement between JAXA and NASA, NASA will receive a portion of the Hayabusa2 sample, in exchange for a percentage of the Bennu regolith when it is delivered to Earth by Osiris Rex In 2023.

Keiko Nakamura Messenger, a scientist and collection curator in NASA’s Astronomical Materials Research and Exploration Sciences (ARES) division, will oversee the care and safe handling of the US portion of the Hayabusa2 specimen. She and her colleagues will go to work inside an entirely new laboratory in Houston that has been created specifically to characterize, document, store and prepare samples for study by ARES and other researchers.

The Hayabusa2 will become the seventh coordinated extraterrestrial cohort that humans have cultivated from outside our planet, and will serve as a prelude to the important organizing work awaiting us in the new ARES lab when the Bennu samples arrive.

Introducing the new asteroid laboratory

New labs are currently being set up at Johnson Space Center to care for and study samples returned from Ryugu and NASA’s Osiris-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu. Credit: RS & H.

“When I was in college in Japan in the 1990s, my college mentor told me about what the only samples we got were from the Apollo missions, plus meteorites that landed on Earth or cosmic dust that was found floating in the stratosphere,” said Nakamura Messenger. “Now, I will be one of the first people to touch this new astronomical matter. It is a great honor to see the sample before anyone else can.”

Nakamura Messenger is joined by ARES researchers Christopher Snead, Anne Nguyen, and Mike Zolensky.

“It’s exciting that this is the first asteroid sample of its kind within the company,” Snead said. “To prepare, we are finishing a new laboratory, as well as installing and configuring special equipment to work with samples that we expect will be composed of small particles and are very difficult to handle.”

Bring Ryugu home

The Hayabusa2 mission began in December 2014 on a six-year journey to study the asteroid Ryugu and collect samples to bring it back to Earth for analysis.

The mission is similar in nature to NASA’s Osiris Rex flight to the asteroid Bennu. Osiris Rex successfully collected a large sample of Bennu in November and will return it in 2023. Both expeditions aim to explore what are known as carbonic asteroids, which are believed to be the rocky building blocks of the early solar system and could hold the keys to understanding how life formed and emerged later.

NASA and JAXA have reached an agreement to share samples from each mission in order to give scientists everywhere as much material as possible to closely study and compare. The plan also means that the OSIRIS-REx mission team will certainly benefit from any early discoveries or lessons learned from the Hayabusa2 mission.

The Hayabusa2 spacecraft reached the asteroid in June 2018. There, the spacecraft deployed and landed on the surface of Ryugu, and collected a sample from near the asteroid’s surface.

About two years later, Hayabusa2 brought the asteroid sample back to Earth. On December 6, the spacecraft will swing close to Earth to drop a landing capsule containing an asteroid sample. The capsule entered a blazing fire through our planet’s atmosphere and landed by parachute to a smooth landing within the Woomera Range complex in the outback of South Australia. JAXA recovery team recovered the capsule, then took it to a nearby portable lab for testing and securing it back to Japan. In Japan, researchers will conduct a preliminary study of the sample and prepare a portion of it for assignment to NASA’s science team.

Nakamura Messenger and Snide will personally travel to Japan in December 2021 to return a NASA sample to Johnson.

New labs for little work

In Houston, the two scientists and their team will go to work inside the new lab. They hope that the sample taken from the agency JAXA will yield big discoveries despite its possible small size: perhaps only 10 milligrams of asteroid material. In contrast, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected at least an ounce (60 grams) of asteroid Benno’s surface material.

Hayabusa2 researchers expect to see a mixture of organic compounds, carrier water, and minerals that will give them much research and understanding. Snead leads the effort to work with the individual parts of the sample, many of which will be microscopic and many times smaller than a human hair.

“Right now, we’re experimenting with how to deal with small particles and metal grains with bulky gloves that reach into closed metal and glass boxes,” Snead says. “The boxes are filled with nitrogen to prevent the samples from interacting with the water and air, but that also means that they are very dry and static electricity has become an issue.”

Another important preparatory work for Snead includes developing a joystick device that uses miniature mechanical tools to capture and work with small asteroid particles.

Sharing with others

When analyzing, describing, and indexing the sample, the ARES team will be one of the first to study material from Ryugu. But their work will also enable other qualified scientists to conduct their own research.

ARES scientists and researchers from around the world will be applying to conduct their own studies of the Ryugu sample for decades to come. When they do so, Nakamura-Messenger and Snead will work with researchers to expertly select, prepare, and deliver portions of the sample for their studies. Once the scientists have finished with the material, they’ll return it to Johnson, where ARES staff will keep detailed records of where it went and the analyzes that were done with it before passing the material back on to more researchers.

For Nakamura-Messenger, Snead, and scientists around the world, it’s over waiting to study a sample Ryugu first-hand. Soon, they will have the opportunity to personally study its structure and chemistry in ways that were previously impossible. Let the discoveries begin!

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