Optical microscope images of six particle samples that were selected from what Hayabusa2 brought back to Earth from asteroid Ryugu. {Japan Aerospace Expedition Agency (JAXA), Science.}

Collecting and transporting back to Earth samples of other planets, moons, asteroids and comets is extremely difficult, costly and time-consuming.  But as just-released papers based on Japan’s Hayabusa2 sample return mission to the asteroid Ryugu make abundantly clear, the results can be fabulous.

In a series of articles in the journal Science, scientists who studied the samples (which were returned to Earth in late 2020) and commentators marvel at the opportunity to study material that was formed as the solar system itself formed — more than 4.5 billion years ago.

The sample contains thousands of different organic (carbon-based) molecules of different kinds, including amino acids and a range of aromatic hydrocarbons.  There are also many minerals formed in the presence of water.

This composition was not a big surprise based on other similar carbon-based meteorites that have fallen to Earth. But they were totally clean samples that were in no way contaminated by life and  physical conditions on our planet. They also had not made the fiery passage through our atmosphere before landing and becoming a meteorite that someone may chance to find.

What they are, then, are pristine examples of the early solar system — solar system baby pictures — with the chemistry and physical thumbprints of the solar nebula and interstellar space from which our Sun and solar system were formed.

The asteroid Ryugu at 30 miles, as photographed by Hayabusa2.  Ryugu is a near-Earth asteroid, far from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.   (JAXA, University of Tokyo and collaborators)

The return capsule brought back about 10 grams of the asteroid.  That might not seem like a lot, but it was more than enough to learn a great deal about an important asteroid from an ancient asteroid family.

As Hiroshi Naraoka of Kyushu University and his colleagues conclude in their Ryugu paper, “Meteorites made of material similar to Ryugu may have delivered amino acids and other prebiotic organic molecules to the early Earth and other rocky planets — providing the building blocks of life.”

Ryugu provides the best chance to date to study what precisely could have been delivered.

Hayabusa2 touchdown on asteroid Ryugu in 2019. (JAXA)

The studies together tell the history of Ryugu, its history and its composition. Read more