Near-Earth asteroid sample may reveal secrets of how the solar system evolved

LEICESTER, UK — Tiny grains of near-Earth asteroids could reveal the secrets of how our solar system formed, according to British researchers.

Scientists have brought a fragment of the asteroid, Ryugu, to the UK’s synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source, where a special technique extracted every tiny detail from it. Researchers at the University of Leicester used the I14 beamline of Diamond’s Nanoprobe, where the X-ray Absorption Near-Edge Spectroscopy (XANES) technique mapped the chemical states of elements for composition analysis.

The hope is that what makes up space rocks floating through our solar system it will provide us with a picture of how the solar system evolved since its formation billions of years ago.

“The X-ray nanoprobe allows scientists to examine the chemical structure of their samples at micron to nano length scales, which is complemented by the nano to atomic resolution of the images in [electron Physical Science Imaging Center] ePSIC,” says study co-author Julia Parker, the lead beamline scientists for I14 at Diamond, in a Press release. “It is very exciting to be able to contribute to the understanding of these unique samples and to work with the Leicester team to demonstrate how beamline techniques, and correlatively ePSIC, can benefit future sample return missions.”

The study authors did not initially set out to discover the origins of our solar system. Rather, they used the data as part of a larger study looking for signs of “space weathering” on the asteroid. Space weathering, changes to a material’s surface due to the harsh environment of space, can alter the physical and chemical composition of the surfaces of asteroids like Ryugu.

Ryugu Spipentine Iron Oxide Ores
Image taken at E01 ePSIC of Ryugu serpentine and Fe oxide minerals. CREDIT: ePSIC/University of Leicester

The sample showed clear signs of dehydration on Ryugu’s surface, and the team believes this is likely due to space weathering. Based on the findings from this sample of asteroids, the authors suggest that asteroids that appear dry on the surface may have had water on them long ago. This idea would require revising our understanding of the abundance of asteroid types and the formation history of the system’s asteroid belt. The building blocks found on Ryugu could also give us insight into how water, minerals, and organic material came together to form the solar system and eventually life on Earth.

Ryugu, named after the underwater palace of the Dragon God in Japanese mythology, is around 900 meters in diameter. Astronomers first discovered it in 1999 within the asteroid belt. sitting between Mars and Jupiter. In 2014, the Japanese space agency JAXA launched Hayabusa2 with the goal of collecting asteroid samples from its surface and subsurface. The spacecraft returned to Earth in 2020 and provided samples to laboratories around the world.

Ryugu Asteroid
Ryugu asteroid – Image taken at 20 km on June 26, 2018, diameter 870 m. CREDIT: Hayabusa2/JAXA.

“This unique mission to collect samples of the most primitive carbonaceous building blocks of the Solar system you need the most detailed microscopy in the world, and that’s why JAXA and the Fine Grain Mineralogy team wanted us to analyze samples on Diamond’s X-ray nanoprobe beamline,” says co-author John Bridges, professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester School of Science. Physics and Astronomy and Space Park.

“We help reveal the nature of space weathering on this asteroid with micrometeorite impacts and the solar wind creating dehydrated serpentine minerals, and an associated reduction of oxidized Fe3+ to more reduced Fe2+.”

Learning to analyze these samples with this new technology could help study new samples from other asteroids, as well as return missions from the Moon and Mars.

The to study is published in the magazine nature astronomy.

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