A group of planetary scientists from the Royal Holloway University of London discovered traces of water and organic matter in a single grain of dust from the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa recovered by the first Japanese Hayabusa mission in 2010.
” In this study, we have studied both the water and organic contents from a dust particle recovered from the surface of near-Earth asteroid 25143 Itokawa by the Hayabusa mission, which was the first mission that brought pristine asteroidal materials to Earth’s astromaterial collection, “the research findings published in the Scientific Reports journal said.
According to the scientists, the uncontaminated samples of astromaterials delivered by the Hayabusa robotic spacecraft allowed them to properly study the physical, chemical and organic properties of the asteroid – an impossible feat with usual meteorite samples.
“Although the organic matter is not directly suggesting life is carried on the asteroid, it tells us the asteroid carries the same raw materials that provided initial feedstock for the origin of life on Earth,” Dr. Queenie Chan, lead author of the study, commented to the Daily Mail.
The study determined that Itokawa had been constantly evolving over billions of years as it went through extreme heating, dehydration and shattering due to a catastrophic impact. However, the asteroid came back together from the shattered fragments and rehydrated itself, absorbing water and organic materials from foreign extra-terrestrial material.
“These findings are really exciting as they reveal complex details of an asteroid’s history and how its evolution pathway is so similar to that of the prebiotic Earth,” the author was cited as saying by the newspaper.
The first Hayabusa mission was launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2003. In 2005, it landed on the near-Earth Itokawa asteroid and collected samples from the 700 meters (2296 feet) long and 300 meters wide rock.
In 2010, Hayabusa returned to Earth carrying soil from the surface of the asteroid. Currently, over 900 Itokawa particles have been separated and are being stored at JAXA facilities for further studies.