Ancient asteroid grains provide insight into the evolution of our solar system

The UK’s national synchrotron facility, Diamond Light Source, was used by a large, international collaboration to study grains collected from a near-Earth asteroid to further our understanding of the evolution of our solar system.

Researchers from the University of Leicester brought a fragment of the Ryugu asteroid to Diamond’s Nanoprobe beamline I14 where a special technique called X-ray Absorption Near Edge Spectroscopy (XANES) was used to map out the chemical states of the elements within the asteroid material, to examine its composition in fine detail. The team also studied the asteroid grains using an electron microscope at Diamond’s electron Physical Science Imaging Centre (ePSIC).

Julia Parker is the Principal Beamline Scientist for I14 at Diamond. She said:

The X-ray Nanoprobe allows scientists to examine the chemical structure of their samples at micron to nano lengthscales, which is complemented by the nano to atomic resolution of the imaging at ePSIC. It’s very exciting to be able to contribute to the understanding of these unique samples, and to work with the team at Leicester to demonstrate how the techniques at the beamline, and correlatively at ePSIC, can benefit future sample return missions.

The data collected at Diamond contributed to a wider study of the space weathering signatures on the asteroid. The pristine asteroid samples enabled the collaborators to explore how space weathering can alter the physical and chemical composition of the surface of carbonaceous asteroids like Ryugu.

The researchers discovered that the surface of Ryugu is dehydrated and that it is likely that space weathering is responsible. The findings of the study, published today in Nature Astronomy, have led the authors to conclude that asteroids that appear dry on the surface may be water-rich, potentially requiring revision of our understanding of the abundances of asteroid types and the formation history of the asteroid belt.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: Image taken at E01 ePSIC of Ryugu serpentine and Fe oxide minerals.

Credit: ePSIC/University of Leicester.