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Thursday 23 December 2010

Breaking news.....Hayabusa 2 lives!

Note: All links are numbered and listed at the end.

[1]Hayabusa 2, a successor to the [2]beleaguered but triumphant JAXA mission [3]Hayabusa, has had its budget green lighted by the Japanese government. For those with some skill in Japanese [4]here is the original story.
Hayabusa was great science, not to mention being a story of success against the odds, but  Hayabusa 2 will be a an even greater humdinger from a 'how did we and our world get here' perspective.

Like Hayabusa, Hayabusa 2 will travel to an asteroid using [5]ion propulsion, collect samples and return them to earth. But two things are different in Hayabusa 2 :

First the technology is more mature, and JAXA have had a lot of experience dealing successfully with every conceivable problem from Haybusa. So the odds are good that this will be a successful (and hopefully drama free) mission.

Second the target for Hayabusa was I[6]tokawa, an S type, or stony asteroid ([7]here is a nice round up of common asteroid types). For Hayabusa 2 it (provisionally) is  1999JU3. This small but intriguing target has been [8]identified as a C-type, carbon bearing, asteroid [9]just under a kilometer across.

Image above: The target of  Hayabusa 2, asteroid 162173 1999JU3, moves through space. Image courtesy of JAXA.

C-type asteroids are thought to be the sources for [10]carbanaceous chondrite meteorites, which are known to have [11]complex organic chemistry. This chemistry is thought to be similar to the kind that may have preceded the start of life on Earth. One famous carbanaceous chondrite, the Murchison meteorite, has been found to contain an [12]incredible an variety of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and [13]nucleobases (the building blocks of DNA). Chemical compounds from the same meteorite have been shown to [14]self assemble into membranes and [15]form boundary structures. It is certainly likely that carbanaceous chondrites contributed some of pre-biotic Earths supply if organic compounds.
What is more carbanaceous chondrites show definite signs of coming from bodies with subsurface, [16]pore space, water. That is: water flowing through minute gaps and fissures in the subsurface rock. 1999JU3 also shows signs of having interacted with liquid water, [17]bearing patches of phyllosilicates, although given its size it is likely 1999JU3 is itself a fragment of a larger body which had pore space water.

Image right:  A coal black carbanaceous chondrite -the dark colouring is due to the abundance of carbon compounds. Image courtesy of

So the next Hayabusa will return samples from a body that has had organic chemistry, interacting with liquid water., in a rocky environment.... those are conditions close to the ones life is thought to have started in, but preserved and uncontaminated by actual life for over 4 billion years. To a guy like me, fascinated by the idea of how chemical systems evolve towards life, that's a mouth watering prospect!

Hyabusa 2 is currently slated to launch in 2014, return around 2020, and will be patterned after the first Hayabusa. When at the target asteroid it will not only collect samples, but will deploy a small landing robot, MINERVA-2 to explore the asteroids surface.

My thanks to [18]the Japanese arm of for bringing this to the attention of us westerners

Update: [19] Here is a link to the English version of the original article.

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