French Scientists to Help Analyze Hayabusa2 Asteroid Samples

Fig. 2 Sample container A inside the room (credit: JAXA)

The Japanese Hayabusa-2 mission returned at least 5.4 g of dust from the asteroid Ryugu. That’s 50 times more than expected! These unpublished samples could contain primitive organic molecules that played a role in the emergence of life on Earth.

PARIS (CNES PR) — A fabulous Christmas present! A harvest beyond expectations! A dream come true … Words fail to qualify the extraordinary success of the Hayabusa2 mission which deposited on December 6, 2020, in the Australian desert, a 40 cm diameter capsule containing a treasure: at least 5.4 g material from asteroid Ryugu. 

This alien material can be seen in the photo above: it’s all black, coal-like grains of very different sizes piled up to the left of the small 4.8cm diameter container. They were taken in February 2019 during the 1st touch & go of the Hayabusa-2 probe , when the 900 m wide asteroid was more than 340 million km from Earth.

Organic Dust from Another Time!

Ten years ago, the Japanese probe Hayabusa1 had already returned a few grains of an asteroid but the infinitesimal quantity (only 1 mg) had not allowed extensive laboratory analyzes. In addition, the samples came from an S-type asteroid, that is to say composed mainly of silicates and not of carbon like Ryugu. However, carbon is the atom at the base of life on Earth! It is the one sought in extraterrestrial matter in order to understand the origin of life on Earth.

They will allow us to know whether the origin of carbon on Earth comes from comets and/or asteroids, ”emphasizes Francis Rocard, head of solar system exploration programs at CNES.

These samples – unparalleled in meteorite collections – should also provide answers on the formation and evolution of our Solar System.

In Search of the Primitive Compounds of the Solar System

Since December 08, 2020, these samples have been hosted in Japan, at the Extraterrestrial Specimen Conservation Center of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) built specifically for the Hayabusa2 mission. They will be studied on site during the 1st semester of 2021.

A French instrument will participate in the 1st analyzes. This is MicrOmega, a hyperspectral microscope that works in the visible and near infrared – a copy was also present on the Mascot lander. It is the only non-Japanese instrument in the laboratory!

Arrived in Japan on July 03, 2020 , MicrOmega was developed at the Orsay Space Astrophysics Institute by the team of astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Bibring, who was the scientific manager of the Philae lander of the Rosetta mission . 

“MicrOmega will non-destructively characterize the mineralogical and molecular composition of all the Ryugu grains and in particular determine the presence, or not, of hydrated and carbon compounds. Subsequently, the analyzes will be carried out on the basis of the catalog drawn up by MicrOmega” indicates Francis Rocard.

In the summer of 2021, grains from Ruygu will be sent to a large international consortium of around 200 researchers selected by JAXA. Some will come to France: in Genoble, Lille , Marseille, Paris, Orsay and Vandeuvre-lès-Nancy. Twenty French scientists were in fact selected!  Supported by CNES, the French analyzes should last until summer 2022. Then the time for an international call for projects will come. You will understand the history – terrestrial – of these samples – extraterrestrials – has only just begun!

Hayabusa-2’s container also contained gas emitted by samples collected on the trip to Earth (it was hotter in the capsule than on the asteroid). These gases will be analyzed to determine their chemical and molecular composition. “This is the very first sample return to the world of a gaseous material from deep space,” said the Japanese space agency.

Hats off and congratulations to JAXA on the success of the Hayabusa-2 mission!