7 Awestriking Close-Up Images of an Asteroid 300 Million km Away Reveal Cosmic Secrets

Here's an unparalleled view of the surface of asteroid Ryugu, a massive asteroid orbiting our sun around 300 million kilometers away.

Asteroid Ryugu, formally identified as 162173 Ryugu, provisional designation 1999 JU3, is a potentially hazardous asteroid of the Apollo Group. The space rock was discovered in 1999 and is strangely shaped like a cube, measuring around 1 kilometer in diameter.

Its official name Ryūgū means Dragon Palace in Japanese and makes reference to an underwater palace in a Japanese folktale. The potentially hazardous asteroid makes its way around our sun at a distance of between 0.96–1.41 AU once every 16 months.

An image of asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of around 6 km. Image Credit: JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST.)
An image of asteroid Ryugu from an altitude of around 6 km. Image Credit: JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, University of Aizu, AIST.)

In 2018, the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission arrived at asteroid Ryugu in order to study the asteroid from orbit, and collect soil samples which will eventually be brought back to Earth for further studies.

And since arriving in orbit around Ryugu in June 0f 2018, the Hayabusa2 mission has continued surprising us positively.

Hayabusa2 launched in December of 2014 and is planned to return to Earth, carrying surface samples of the asteroid by December 2020.

Its mission has been revealing for scientists.

Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).
Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).

On October of 2018, the spacecraft orbiting the asteroid launched a landing module onto the asteroid to take pictures of its surface. Descending to the asteroid from an altitude of around 41 meters, the MASCOT module impacted Ryugu’s surface bouncing 17 meters along the asteroid’s surface, eventually getting stuck in a depression of the asteroid.

Some of the first images of asteroid Ryugu taken by the Hayabusa2 mission. Image Credit: JAXA.
Some of the first images of asteroid Ryugu taken by the Hayabusa2 mission. Image Credit: JAXA.

But despite getting stuck, MASCO managed to spin and snap breathtaking, unprecedented images of the asteroid’s geological features. MASCO photographed the asteroid both in its 6-minute descent and during the 17 hours MASCOT spent on Ryugu’s surface before its batteries ran out of juice, leaving MASCOT helpless on a one-kilometer wide asteroid.

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Jaumann et al (Science (2019)
Jaumann et al (Science (2019)

The image snapped from the surface of Ryugu have been beamed back to Earth and published in a collection of breathtaking and revealing images from the surface of an asteroid orbiting our sun at unimaginable distances.

Image from the surface of Asteroid Ryugu, photographed by rovers of the Japanese Space Agency.
Image from the Surface of Asteroid Ryugu, photographed by rovers of the Japanese Space Agency. Image Credit: JAXA

The photographs from the surface of the asteroid already reveal a plethora of information about asteroids and comets in our solar system. Experts say that the data gathered by Hayabusa2 will have important implications in our understanding of the cosmic bodies, as well as the formation of our solar system.

Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).
Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).

So far, analysis of the surface photographs of Ryugu has revealed to experts that the asteroid’s surface is eerily similar to meteorites discovered on Earth, known as carbonaceous chondrites.

Photographs of the surface of Ryugu have shown rocks that look like carbonaceous chondrite meteorites and revealed the presence of various types of rocks including dark-colored rocks that appear to be crumbled as cauliflowers, but also birther and smoother rocks, ranging in size from a few centimeters to several meters wide.

Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).
Surface features of Asteroid Ryugu. Jaumann et al (Science (2019).

But one important thing scientists noticed in addition to the various rocks is that the surface of asteroid Ryugu lacked dust. This means that there must be a kind of unknown process that removes the dust from the surface of the asteroid, either sucking it into the core of the asteroid or pushing it out into space.

Ruyugu is believed to have formed around 700 million years ago, from the breakup of an even larger cosmic body. The fact that Ryugu lacks dust on its surface is weird. Astronomers concur that after a few tens of millions of years traveling around the cosmos, dust should have developed on the surface of the asteroid. But we are not seeing that on Ruyug.

So, if there isn’t any dust on its surface, it suggests that there is a sort pf geological, physical phenomenon that “cleans up” the surface of similar bodies.