This Is What It’s Like To Stand On An Asteroid

Color photo of the surface of Ryugu taken by the Rover-1B on Sept. 23. The asteroid looks like a total “rubble pile” of uncompacted rock. Notice how dark the rocks are. Ryugu is a rare combination C and G-type asteroid. It’s carbonaceous (C-type) or rich in carbon and also shows the presence of clay-type minerals and mica (G-type).  JAXA

At this point you’re probably thinking I’m nuts about asteroids. I am. When was the last time we had the opportunity to experience what it’s like to stand on one? Like never! That’s why I’m hopping happy about the latest images from the Japanese Hayabusa-2 mission to the half-mile-wide asteroid Ryugu. Big things come in small packages — especially when you get right to their surfaces, which practically fill the field of view in these photos.

A few days ago, when the Hayabusa-2 probe descended toward the surface of Ryugu to release the rovers, it took this incredibly detailed photo. One meter (1 m) equals about 3 feet. JAXA


Rover-1B shot a 15-frame movie on asteroid Ryugu’s surface from 8:34 a.m. to 9:48 a.m. Central Time on September 22. JAXA

The latest photos from the MINERVA robots, happily hopping around Ryugu, show an incredibly rocky surface. I used to think I could walk there, at least in my imagination, but now I’m not so sure it would be possible without tripping, falling and rebounding into space at escape velocity. The rocks are rich in carbon and therefore likely rich in organic compounds, those containing carbon. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the samples Hayabusa-2 will return in 2020 contains numerous amino acids, similar to the ones that are strung together under instructions from DNA and RNA to build proteins.

Another view of Ryugu’s surface taken by Rover-1B. JAXA

From earlier studies of its surface using spectroscopy (examining the quality of sunlight reflected from its surface), astronomers believe it’s partly made up of clay-like minerals, indicating the asteroid was altered by water sometime in the past. If I could just get my hands on some of those rocks I bet they’d  resemble carbonaceous chondrite (stony meteorites) picked up in many places on Earth.

 

 

Hey, look. It’s a big rock. Photo from Rover-1A. JAXA
Haybusa-2 photographed Ryuku’s south pole region recently, site of a large boulder. JAXA

When Earth was a young, forming planet, it’s thought that water and critical carbon compounds necessary for the evolution of life were delivered by comets and asteroids. Some like Ryugu are still out there.

This is a slice of the carbonaceous chondrite called NWA 3118 found in the Sahara Desert. Mario Müller