Well, this rocks! The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Hayabusa2 probe has snapped this stunning shot of asteroid 162173 Ryugu from just 6km above the asteroid’s surface – an important milestone in the probe’s overall mission.
Hayabusa2’s eventual goal is to bring back rock samples from Ryugu, as its predecessor the Hayabusa probe did from the Itokawa asteroid in 2010. Once returned to Earth, these samples will be studied by JAXA scientists with a view to discovering more about both asteroids’ physical make-up – knowledge that would be vital should humankind need to deflect any asteroid threatening to collide with our planet in the future – and their chemistry.
Asteroids are believed to have delivered many of the chemicals needed for life to form, such as amino acids and the nucleotides that make up our DNA, to the young Earth. So far, however, our knowledge of the chemistry of an asteroid’s surface is largely derived from studying meteorites – asteroid fragments which have landed upon the Earth, which makes it difficult to determine if they have been contaminated with material after crashing down to the surface. Studying asteroid samples straight from the source, such as those Hayabusa2 will bring back, will give scientists a much clearer picture.
This is an extract from issue 326 of BBC Focus magazine.
Subscribe and get the full article delivered to your door, or download the BBC Focus app to read it on your smartphone or tablet. Find out more