In the two years since Japan’s Hayabusa2 jettisoned a small capsule to eagerly waiting scientists in the desert of South Australia, researchers have been picking through its contents, keen to unearth the secrets of our early solar system.
The capsule contained just 5.4 g of material from the asteroid Ryugu, which Hayabusa2, scooped up in a landmark mission in late 2018.
By performing isotopic analysis, French scientists have obtained further insight into the chemistry and origins of the asteroid and furthered our understanding of the early Solar System.
Asteroids are often compared to rubble leftover from a building site, as many represent some of the most primitive and pristine material from the earliest days of the Solar System’s formation. Meteorites from asteroids, although highly prized by researchers, are inevitably contaminated by their passage through Earth’s atmosphere and exposure to weather and other terrestrial processes.
Since the samples from Hayabusa2 are directly from the asteroid, they are a game-changer for research into the earliest origins of our solar system. So far, analysis has already shown that Ryugu is close in composition to ‘Ivuna-like’ carbonaceous chondrites (‘Ivuna’ is the type-specimen for this type of meteorite).
This type of chemistry is typical of primitive host asteroids and is similar to the composition of the Sun. Ryugu has also shown a few puzzling isotopic signatures which overlap with other classifications of carbonaceous chondrites.
New analysis has more deeply investigated the isotopic ratios of zinc and copper within the samples. These elements are key to understanding how volatiles are gathered and incorporated into the structure of terrestrial, or rocky, planets.
This research, recently published in the journal Nature confirms that Ryugu clearly delineates Ryugu from other types of carbonaceous chondrites, confirming that it is actually Ivuna-like. Importantly, the measurement of copper and zinc isotopes has also provided the best estimates for the amounts of these elements in the ‘solar composition’ (the chemistry of the Sun and early Solar System).
Measurements of the isotopic composition of zinc, in particular, are useful for understanding the process of forming habitable planets such as Earth. The research also indicates that Earth contains about 5% of Ryugu-like mass, providing key insights into the formation of Earth.
Clare Kenyon is a science journalist for Cosmos. An ex-high school teacher, she is currently wrangling the death throes of her PhD in astrophysics, has a Masters in astronomy and another in education. Clare also has diplomas in music and criminology and a graduate certificate of leadership and learning.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.