Tiny fragments of an asteroid located more than 200 million miles from Earth could hold the key to discovering the origins of the world’s oceans, according to researchers at a Scottish university.
Source: The Herald
Scientists in Glasgow and Australia will examine samples from the Ryugu asteroid when samples from the Japanese-built Hayabusa2 probe arrive on earth late next year.
It is hoped miniscule pieces of space rock obtained from the groundbreaking mission could be used to provide critical new insights into the early history of the solar system – particularly how water accumulated on the still-forming Earth.
Researchers from the University of Glasgow will use laser pulses to slice single atoms obtained from the samples, allowing them to determine their exact chemical makeup.
Dr Luke Daly of the University of Glasgow’s school of geographical and earth sciences will lead the project in partnership with Curtin University in Perth, Australia.
The unmanned craft took off from the 900-metre wide space rock on Tuesday, with a capsule containing miniscule samples of the asteroid set to be fired towards a remote part of the Australian outback in December 2020 after a near six-year mission.
The team will use pioneering atom probe topography (APT) technology to explore the composition of the samples.
Dr Daly added: “When the Earth began to take shape, water was only present in our region of the solar system in the form of gas, which would have been blown away from the proto-Earth out by the early solar winds meaning Earth formed dry, so exactly where our oceans came from is still a bit of a mystery.”
“One suggestion is that it was carried here on comets and asteroids, but recent measurements show that the composition of those potential sources don’t match that of the Earth’s oceans – there has to be another source which also contributed water.
“What we’re hoping to explore is the possibility that this missing water could have been seeded by the Sun itself. The APT process will give us an extraordinary level of detail about what the three samples we’ll receive from JAXA are made from and how they’ve been affected and altered by exposure to solar wind – radiation from the sun – while they were sitting on the surface of the asteroid.”
He added: “We know that the hydrogen ions from solar wind irradiates rocks and their constituent minerals, which generates water. Being able to physically interact with the Hayabusa2 samples with APT will provide us with a wealth of new information about the water in the asteroid and how it was formed.”
“We hope that will help us get closer to unlocking the mystery of how our oceans were created.”
The probe is set to remain in space to undertake further missions.
A Tweet from Japan’s space agency (JAXA) described the spacecraft’s departure from the Ryugu asteroid on Wednesday as “an emotional moment.”
Source: The Herald