Rock samples taken from a distant asteroid could shed light on how Earth’s first oceans were formed, according to researchers at the University of Glasgow.
Scientists from the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences are set to be given three samples retrieved from the Ryugu asteroid upon the return of the Hayabusa2 space probe.
Samples will be provided by the Japanse Aeronautical Exploration Agency (JAXA), which launched the probe in December of 2014.
After nearly six years in space, where it deployed two rovers onto the rocky surface of the Ryugu asteroid, Hayabusa2 is on its way home and expected to return by late next year.
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Researchers at the University will use sophisticated sampling techniques known as ‘APT’, or atom probe tomography. It is hoped that the examination of these samples will enable scientists to learn more about how Earth’s oceans were formed billions of years ago.
“When Earth began to take shape, water was only present in our region of the solar system in the form of gas, which would have been blown away from the proto-Earth by the early solar winds, meaning Earth formed dry – so exactly where our oceans came from is still a bit of a mystery,” said Dr Luke Daly, lead academic on the atom probe project.
One theory proposes that water was carried to Earth on comets and asteroids. However, Dr Daly noted that “recent measurements” show that the composition of these sources do not match that of the planet’s oceans. “There has to be another source which also contributed water,” he said.
“What we’re hoping to explore is the possibility that this missing water could have been seeded by the Sun itself. The APT process will give us an extraordinary level of detail about what the three samples we’ll receive from JAXA are made from and how they’ve been affected and altered by exposure to solar wind – radiation from the sun – while they were sitting on the surface of the asteroid,” Dr Daly added.
Scientists at the University will work closely with colleagues from Curtin University in Australia as part of the research project.
Equipment housed at Curtin University will enable researchers to cut single atoms from the rock samples using a pulsed laser. By observing and measuring the time it takes for particular atoms to move from the sample to a detector will help determine their mass and charge.
Ultimately, this could provide a clear picture of the chemical composition of samples, all on an atom-to-atom basis.
“We know that the hydrogen ions from solar wind irradiate rocks and their constituent minerals, which generates water. Being able to physically interact with the Hayabusa2 samples with APT will provide us with a wealth of new information about the water in the asteroid and how it was formed,” Dr Daly said. “We hope that will help us get closer to unlocking the mystery of how our oceans were created.”