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Asteroid Ryugu’s violent past

Date: 24 September 2020 Tags: Space


Shiny boulders on asteroid Ryugu may shed light on the cataclysmic impacts behind that space rock's origins.



The near-Earth asteroids Itokawa, Bennu and Ryugu are each loose piles of rubble held together by their collective gravity. They likely formed after collisions shattered their parent bodies into many fragments. 



  • To uncover secrets about rubble-pile asteroids, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) dispatched the spacecraft Hayabusa2 to Ryugu, asteroid that is one of the darkest celestial bodies in the solar system.

  • In 2018, Hayabusa2 arrived at Ryugu to map it from orbit and deploy rovers on the boulder-covered asteroid. Ryugu is a carbonaceous or C-type asteroid, which means it is primarily composed of rock that contains a lot of carbon and water. C-types are the most common kind of asteroid found in the outer main asteroid belt. 

  • Although Ryugu's surface is uniformly dark, the scientists behind the new research found numerous boulders scattered across the asteroid that were 1.5 or more times brighter than their surroundings.

  • This contrast made the researchers suspect these boulders may have come from outside the asteroid.

  • By analyzing the spectrum of light reflected off 21 of these boulders, the scientists deduced they were made of minerals known as anhydrous silicates.

  • Prior studies have suggested that such water-poor, silicon-rich rocks make up silicaceous or S-type asteroids, the most common kind of asteroid found in the inner main asteroid belt. The brightness of these boulders also matches the brightness of S-type asteroids.

  • One potential explanation for the presence of these bright boulders is that they struck Ryugu after the asteroid formed. 

  • The researchers suggested these bright boulders are likely the result of Ryugu's parent body colliding with one or more S-type asteroids before or during Ryugu's formation. These S-type asteroids were likely smaller than Ryugu's parent body, since there is only a very low level of S-type contamination on Ryugu.

  • Previous research suggested that Ryugu preserves troves of primordial material from the nebula that gave birth to the sun and its planets. As such, samples from it could yield key insights on planetary formation. 

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