Asteroid BREAKTHROUGH: How scientists uncovered 'history of universe' from SINGLE grain

Hayabusa was a Japanese robotic spacecraft sent to space to return a piece of material from a small near-Earth asteroid named 25143 Itokawa. It was launched in May 2003 and made contact with the space rock just over two years later. After arriving at Itokawa, Hayabusa studied the asteroid intensely, taking note of its properties, before collecting a number of tiny samples and returning to Earth in 2010.

Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University, revealed the plan to BBC Radio 4 listeners in 2005.

She said: ”Once it stabilises, it’s going to drop a small probe onto the asteroid. 

“If it is not careful it could knock the asteroid away – this thing is not going to be able to land the same way you do a spacecraft.

“So it is actually going to roll and tumble on the surface before gradually coming to a halt.

“Then it will shoot a laser into the surface and explode some material which will be shot up into a cone.

“That will then be pushed back up to the mothership and brought back to Earth."

Dr Grady went on to reveal how just a single grain of rock could prove valuable in understanding the history of our universe.

She added: “It will only bring back a few grams – a tiny amount of material – back to Earth for us to analyse. 

“But we can get so much information out of a single grain. 

“To say we hope to get the history of the universe is pushing it a little bit, but at least the history of the solar system. 

“Looking at these objects we will have samples of these prestige materials – the original dust grains.”

In 2013, The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced that 1500 extraterrestrial grains had been recovered, comprising of the minerals olivinepyroxeneplagioclase and iron sulphide.

The grains were about 10 micrometres in size and JAXA performed detailed analyses of the samples by splitting particles and examining their crystal structure.

Scientists believed the dust from Itokawa suggested that it had probably originally been part of a larger asteroid.

The sample collected was suggested the asteroid had been exposed there for about eight million years, helping to map out the history of our solar system.

Surprisingly, the grains were also found to contain traces of meteors, suggesting a previous collision.

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