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.
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Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.