04/12/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 04/12/2019 13:17
Dr. Harold Connolly Jr., a researcher with two international space teams, believes the study of two asteroids that an American and a Japanese spacecraft recently rendezvoused with could unravel mysteries of the Solar System's origin, including the dawn of Earth.
Connolly, who chairs the Department of Geology within Rowan University's School of Earth & Environment, has high-profile positions with NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission to Bennu and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) spacecraft Hayabusa2's flight to Ryugu.
The mission of both spaceships is to collect a sample from the surface of their respective asteroids, which are Earth-crossing and thus potentially hazardous, and return with them to Earth.
Connolly, a co-investigator for the Hayabusa2 mission, is a co-investigator and the mission sample scientist for OSIRIS-REx, a position in which he will lead research into the sample when the vessel returns with its payload to Earth in 2023.
Hayabusa2 launched in 2014 and returns to Earth in late 2020.
Scientists for both missions are operating the spacecraft remotely, making news - and history - practically every day.
On April 5, Hayabusa2 dropped an explosive, known as a 'small carry-on impactor,' over Ryugu to create a fresh crater from which to sample the surface.
'It went flawlessly,' Connolly told National Public Radio's All Things Considered program following the explosion.
He explained that both the JAXA and NASA missions are already producing vast troves of information.
'These asteroids are (similar to) the precursors to what Earth was made from,' Connolly said of the carbonaceous bodies, adding that minerals on Ryugu contain water and prebiotic compounds like those that predate life on Earth. 'Ryugu is a time capsule.'
Already publishing results
While OSIRIS-REx is largely an American mission, and Hayabusa2 is largely Japanese, both include international teams of scientists who are already publishing findings.
The OSIRIS-REx team has published, or will soon publish, in numerous important journals including Nature Communication, Nature Geoscience and Nature Astronomy. On March 19, the team published 'The unexpected surface of asteroid (101955) Bennu,' in Nature.
Of seven articles already in the pipeline, Connolly, who is also a Visiting Professor of Planetary Science at the University of Arizona, is a highlighted author.
Among early findings, it appears that Bennu is much older than scientists expected - 100 million to one billion years old - and that similar objects may have brought prebiotic molecules and volatiles such as water to Earth.
The asteroid also releases 'ejection plumes,' waves of particles a few centimeters across that leave a trail.
'Bennu is what we call an active asteroid,' Connolly said. 'It's very exciting because we've never seen a particle ejection event from an asteroid up close… It's important because we don't want particles hitting the spacecraft.'
He said scientists are still mapping Bennu for an ideal spot from which to collect a small sample.
Launched in December 2014, nearly two years ahead of OSIRIS-REx, Hayabusa2 has touched the surface of Ryugu and, scientists believe, already collected a sample.
Despite close timelines of the missions and what appear to be similar goals, Connolly said the two are not openly competing.
'It's more of a friendly competition, with mutual cooperation,' he said. 'There's been a very rewarding relationship between the two teams and we learn a great deal from each other.'