Academic joins only UK team to study samples from asteroid Ryugu

Katherine Moss
An artist's depiction of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft passing near Earth. by Credit JAXA

Professor Mark Burchell from the department of Physics and Astronomy will join the only UK led team to get access to samples collected from the Ryugu asteroid by the Hayabusa2 space mission.

Following the initial mission in December 2020, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) selected 40 research proposals from nine countries for its first International Research Announcement of Opportunity (AO), to study samples collected from the Ryugu asteroid by the Hayabusa2 mission.

The project, “Water and Organics of Ryugu” , is led by Dr Queenie Chan, from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway (London), and as well as Kent, also includes partners from the Natural History Museum (London), NASA and the Earth–Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Japan. Hayabusa2 provides the first opportunity and possibly the least contaminated samples of a carbon-rich asteroid which can be studied by state-of-the-art techniques to constrain the origin and evolution of the building blocks of life.

In March 2021, Dr Chan led a team who studied samples that were returned to Earth from asteroid ‘Itokawa’ by JAXA’s first Hayabusa mission in 2010. The samples showed that water and organic matter that originated from the asteroid itself had evolved chemically through time.

The Kent team (Dr. Vassilia Spathis and Professor Mark Burchell) will provide detailed studies of the surface and internal structure of the samples using micro-CT scanning, and will analyse the organic content using micro-Raman spectroscopy. Kent staff have a long tradition in studying extra-terrestrial materials.

Professor Burchell said “The opportunity to work on these samples is very welcome and we thank JAXA. We have previously looked at various materials including cometary dust collected by the NASA Stardust mission, cosmic dust collected in Earth orbit and micro-meteorites found here on Earth. Some Kent staff worked with Dr. Queenie Chan on her study of Itokawa samples, and we are pleased to be able to continue the collaboration with the new Ryugu samples.”