Is the Truth in Asteroid Dust?

Is the truth in asteroid dust? Perhaps we’ll soon learn the answer. This month, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully brought asteroid dust back to Earth for the second time in history.

Image of the sun and planets in a row with an illustration of the asteroid belt-is there truth in asteroid dust

A small asteroid doesn’t have a heated interior. Scientists believe that means that since the materials on an asteroid have never experienced that intense heat and altered, they have the “initial characteristics of the solar system.” Studying this material could lead to a new understanding of the history and development of our solar system.

What Is an Asteroid

It’s an irregularly shaped celestial body usually found between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. (See the illustration above.) They can be as small as pebbles or hundreds of miles in diameter. Most asteroids are rocks, but some have clays or metals in them. There are currently 1,038,96 known asteroids.

Scientists believe that during the formation of our solar system some rocks and materials were “left overs.” These left overs are what we call asteroids. 

How Do Scientists Study Asteroids?

Astronomers have spent years observing celestial bodies like asteroids with powerful telescopes. Some scientists have been fortunate enough to work with meteorites, tiny bits of asteroids that survived the fiery plunge through earth’s atmosphere and landed on the surface. 

First Asteroid Dust Collected

In 2005, the Japanese probe Hayabusa (Japanese for falcon), touched down on the asteroid Itokawa. On June 13, 2010, Hayabusa returned to Earth. Before the main body of the probe disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere, it released a heat-resistant capsule that landed in the Australian outback.

The capsule contained about 1,500 particles from the surface of Itokawa. The pieces included low-iron, low-metal chondrite, a material found in Earth’s super-heated interior but not on its surface.

Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research Team at Socorro, New Mexico discovered 25143 Itokawa on Sept. 26, 1998. It is about 1,755 feet long and orbits 186 million miles from Earth. 

A Second Successful Collection

a view of the asteroid Ryugu --the asteroid appears to be a rounded cube with lots of rocks and pebbles on it--is the truth in asteroid dust?
A colored view of the C-type asteroid 162173 Ryugu, taken from
Hayabusa2
By ISAS/JAXA, CC BY 4.0

On December 14, 2020 JAXA confirmed that a capsule from Hayabusa2 landed in an Australian desert during the previous week. It contained black grains from asteroid Ryugu. They believe they got at least 0.1 grams of material. They reported a plan to open the capsule this week, but news sources have reported no further information.

The Future of Asteroid Dust

By the end of 2021, JAXA promised some dust to NASA, some to international researchers, and plans to save about 40 percent of the sample for future researchers.

NASA’s spacecraft OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 and traveled  334 million kilometers from Earth to asteroid Bennu. It scooped up samples from Bennu on October 2o, 2020. The sample will return to Earth in 2023. NASA promised some of the samples to JAXA in exchange for the sample from Ryugu. They also promised samples to other researchers.

Is the Truth in Asteroid Dust?

Asteroid dust is kind of like housekeeping dust, right? There are some truths in the asteroid dust samples. Is it the truth about the origins of the solar system? Maybe. The problem with discovering the truth is that we can only see and understand with the knowledge and history we have now. That clouds our judgment and understanding to where we may be blind to the truth, even if it’s really out there. Does that mean these very expensive trips aren’t worth it? Is our search for the truth worth any cost? What future discoveries do you hope will result from studying asteroid dust? I wonder if the asteroids have dust bunnies?

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