A University of Stirling scientist is set to begin analysing – and attempting to recreate – conditions on a primitive asteroid as part of a major international space mission led by the Japanese.
Dr Axel Hagermann, Associate Professor in Biological and Environmental Sciences, will spend the coming months assessing data from the Hayabusa2 mission – which is aiming to learn more about the origin and evolution of the solar system – after it entered into orbit around Ryugu earlier today [June 27].
Discovered in May 1999, Ryugu is a primitive, C-type asteroid – meaning its composition includes water and organics – and is part of the Apollo group of asteroids, regarded as potentially hazardous due to their close proximity to Earth.
Hayabusa2 is the first mission to an asteroid of this nature and only the second ever to return a sample from an asteroid, and experts believe it will provide an important insight into conditions in the early solar system.
Dr Hagermann – the only UK-based scientist on the mission – is co-investigator on the Thermal Infrared Imager, which will study the temperature and thermal inertia of the asteroid. He will also help analyse data from a radiometer on the German-built lander, Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT), and use this information to recreate the exact conditions of the asteroid surface in the Planetary Ices Laboratory at Stirling.
Dr Hagermann, a geophysicist who focuses on ice and its physical properties, explained: “As thermal measurements on an asteroid are very tricky, this approach allows us to ensure that the thermal measurements can be interpreted as accurately as possible.
“Thermal data from the asteroid surface are important because they allow us to constrain the surface material’s physical properties, confirm erosion – such as thermal cracking of rocks – and even explore minute changes in an asteroid’s orbit due to the way it re-radiates heat into space.”
The successor of Hayabusa, which returned to earth in 2010, Hayabusa2 is flown by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in collaboration with the German Aerospace Centre and the National Centre for Space Studies in France. Launched in December 2014, the 600kg spacecraft features ion engines as well as state-of-the-art guidance and navigation technology, antennas and attitude control systems.
Now it has arrived, it will accompany Ryugu for approximately 18 months, observing the asteroid from around 20km, before releasing the lander onto its surface. In addition to the radiometer, MASCOT also carries an infrared spectrometer, a magnetometer and a camera, as well as an explosive device, to create an artificial crater to aid sampling.
The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth with samples by the end of 2020, allowing the team to clarify interactions between minerals, water and organic matter in the primitive solar system.
“By doing so, we will learn about the origin and evolution of Earth, the oceans, and life, and maintain and develop the technologies for deep-space return exploration,” Dr Hagermann added.
Dr Hagermann, who recently joined Stirling from Open University, is also currently working on the NASA InSight mission and will be involved in assessing data from the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe, better known as HP3. This work aims to piece together the story behind Mars’ origin and evolution by measuring the heat currently escaping through the surface of Mars.
Stirling’s involvement in Hayabusa2 is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. HP3 and MASCOT are led by the DLR Institute of Planetary Research Berlin.