1st Asteroid Samples Reveal Surprising Look at Space Rock Crashes

Microscopic views of an asteroid sample collected by Japan's Hayabusa probe show tiny bits of grain that have adhered to it from impacting meteorites.
Microscopic views of an asteroid sample collected by Japan's Hayabusa probe show tiny bits of grain that have adhered to it from impacting meteorites. (Image credit: PNAS)

The first dust grains ever retrieved from the surface of an asteroid now confirm that these minor planets are constantly shaped by a continuous barrage of high-speed microscopic impacts, scientists find.

The Japanese asteroid probe Hayabusasucceeded in returning more than 1,500 grains of dustfrom the asteroid 25143 Itokawa when it parachuted into the Australian outback in June 2010. Already, the samples from this 1,800 foot-long (550 meter) rubble pile have helped solve the longstanding mystery of where most meteorites striking our planet come from.

To uncover still more details about asteroids, scientists analyzed the size, mineralogy, shape and geochemistry of five dust grains recovered by Hayabusa. The smallest of these was just 40 microns, or millionths of a meter, in diameter — less than half the width of a human hair — and were cut into pieces using focused beams of electrically charged ions for analysis under microscopes.

The surfaces of these five grains were dominated by fractures, suggesting they might have experienced shocks from impacts. The walls of these fissures contained not only craters just 100 to 200 nanometers (billionths of a meter) wide, but also a large number of particles stuck onto them, ones several microns wide or smaller. [Photos: Japan's Mission to Asteroid Itokawa]

"They work like sticky tape," study lead author Eizo Nakamura, a materials scientist at Okayama University in Japan, told SPACE.com.

A small capsule containing dust from the asteroid Itokawa touched down in June 2010 at the Woomera test range in the Australian Outback. Launched in May 2003, Hayabusa suffered a host of technical problems. (Image credit: A. Ikeshita/MEF/ISAS)

The size range and chemical composition of the particles stuck on the sides of these fractures, along with the presence of nanometer-sized craters, suggest the pitted surfaces of these grains were formed by micrometeoroids just nanometers wide colliding into the asteroid. These impacts were high-energy, hitting at speeds of about 11,200 to 22,400 mph (18,000 to 36,000 kph).

Asteroids are often considered primitive objects left relatively unchanged since the formation of the solar system. These new findings reveal their surfaces have actually experienced much "space weathering" over time.

"Asteroid surfaces are not quiet places, but see heavy bombardment," Nakamura said.

The fact that Itokawa and similar asteroids are airless bodies with minimal gravitational fields means that dust may regularly get kicked off them by impacts. This microscopic debris likely then goes on to constantly slam into other interplanetary objects in outer space, playing a major role in their shaping and evolution, Nakamura said.

Nakamura and his colleagues detailed their findings online Feb. 27 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Charles Q. Choi
Contributing Writer

Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Space.com and Live Science. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica. Visit him at http://www.sciwriter.us