A space probe collects evidence from an asteroid older than Earth

The asteroid Ryugu contains some of the oldest rocks ever studied in a laboratory on Earth. They formed just 5 million years after the formation of the solar system according to some analyzes. The rocks were collected on a space mission by the Hayabusa2 spacecraft in Japan.

Because it is so old, it is made of the same material that formed the planets. “Ryugu is one of the basics of the Earth,” a member of Hisayoshi Yurimoto, a professor at Hokkaido University in Japan, told Space.com.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft was launched in December 2014 and reached the asteroid Ryugu in 2019. It collected two small samples of 5.4 grams of regolith from the asteroid. These samples were transported to Earth in a parachute-equipped capsule in December 2020.

Upon arrival, the samples were distributed among scientific groups, including a team led by Tetsuya Yokoyama, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The team’s recently published results suggest that the samples have a composition close to the solar nebula – the gas cloud that condensed to form the sun and planets. As such, it is made up of the ingredients that formed the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

Ryugu is a carbonaceous chondrite, which means that it is made of carbon-rich material. But Hayabusa2’s long-distance observations revealed some inexplicable discrepancies – including a darker surface color, a greater abundance of phyllosilicate materials, and a more porous composition than expected – so a laboratory analysis was needed to understand better the true nature of the asteroid. Ryugu is somewhat similar to the meteorite Ivuna, which fell in Tanzania in 1938.

“The comparison between Ivuna and Ryugu is very useful to reveal Ryugu’s characteristics,” said Yurimoto.

Using a range of techniques – including electron microscopy, X-ray fluorescence, inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and thermal ionization – the team found that the samples formed in liquid water at a temperature of about 27 to 47 degrees. Celsius, about 5 million years after the solar system began to form.

With a diameter of only 900 meters, Ryugu is too small to generate enough heat to melt the ice. Therefore, Ryugu himself must have come from a larger parent body that formed just 2 to 4 million years after the birth of the solar system. At one point, after 5 million years, a strong impact with another asteroid crushed Ryugu’s parent body. This idea is supported by the presence of large boulders on the surface of Ryugu, which appear to have appeared as debris from a huge impact.

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