How the perils of space have affected asteroid Ryugu

Grey image of a complicated surface composed of many small rocks bound together by dust.
Enlarge / The surface of Ryugu. Image credit: JAXA, University of Tokyo, Kochi University, Rikkyo University, Nagoya University, Chiba Institute of Technology, Meiji University, Aizu University, AIST

An asteroid that has been wandering through space for billions of years is going to have been bombarded by everything from rocks to radiation. Billions of years traveling through interplanetary space increase the odds of colliding with something in the vast emptiness, and at least one of those impacts had enough force to leave the asteroid Ryugu forever changed.

When the Japanese Space Agency’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft touched down on Ryugu, it collected samples from the surface that revealed that particles of magnetite (which is usually magnetic) in the asteroid’s regolith are devoid of magnetism. A team of researchers from Hokkaido University and several other institutions in Japan are now offering an explanation for how this material lost most of its magnetic properties. Their analysis showed that it was caused by at least one high-velocity micrometeoroid collision that broke the magnetite’s chemical structure down so that it was no longer magnetic.

“We surmised that pseudo-magnetite was created [as] the result of space weathering by micrometeoroid impact,” the researchers, led by Hokkaido University professor Yuki Kimura, said in a study recently published in Nature Communications.

What remains…

Ryugu is a relatively small object with no atmosphere, which makes it more susceptible to space weathering—alteration by micrometeoroids and the solar wind. Understanding space weathering can actually help us understand the evolution of asteroids and the Solar System. The problem is that most of our information about asteroids comes from meteorites that fall to Earth, and the majority of those meteorites are chunks of rock from the inside of an asteroid, so they were not exposed to the brutal environment of interplanetary space. They can also be altered as they plummet through the atmosphere or by physical processes on the surface. The longer it takes to find a meteorite, the more information can potentially be lost.

Once part of a much larger body, Ryugu is a C-type, or carbonaceous, asteroid, meaning it is made of mostly clay and silicate rocks. These minerals normally need water to form, but their presence is explained by Ryugu’s history. It is thought that the asteroid itself was born from debris after its parent body was smashed to pieces in a collision. The parent body was also covered in water ice, which explains the magnetite, carbonates, and silicates found on Ryugu—these need water to form.

Magnetite is a ferromagnetic (iron-containing and magnetic) mineral. It is found in all C-type asteroids and can be used to determine their remanent, or remaining, magnetization. The remanent magnetization of an asteroid can reveal how intense the magnetic field was at the time and place of the magnetite’s formation.

Kimura and his team were able to measure remanent magnetization in two magnetite fragments (known as framboids because of their particular shape) from the Ryugu sample. It is proof of a magnetic field in the nebula our Solar System formed in, and shows the strength of that magnetic field at the time that the magnetite formed.

However, three other magnetite fragments analyzed were not magnetized at all. This is where space weathering comes in.

…and what was lost

Using electron holography, which is done with a transmission electron microscope that sends high-energy electron waves through a specimen, the researchers found that the three framboids in question did not have magnetic chemical structures. This made them drastically different from magnetite.

Further analysis with scanning transmission electron microscopy showed that the magnetite particles were mostly made of iron oxides, but there was less oxygen in those particles that had lost their magnetism, indicating that the material had experienced a chemical reduction, where electrons were donated to the system. This loss of oxygen (and oxidized iron) explained the loss of magnetism, which depends on the organization of the electrons in the magnetite. This is why Kimura refers to it as “pseudo-magnetite.”

But what triggered the reduction that demagnetized the magnetite in the first place? Kimura and his team found that there were more than a hundred metallic iron particles in the part of the specimen that the demagnetized framboids had come from. If a micrometeorite of a certain size had hit that region of Ryugu then it would have produced approximately that many particles of iron from the magnetite framboids. The researchers think this mystery object was rather small, or it would have had to have been moving incredibly fast.

“With increasing impact velocity, the estimated projectile size decreases,” they said in the same study.

Pseudo-magnetite might sound like an imposter, but it will actually help upcoming investigations that seek to find out more about what the early Solar System was like. Its presence indicates the former presence of water on an asteroid, as well as space weathering, such as micrometeoroid bombardment, that affected the asteroid’s composition. How much magnetism was lost also affects the overall remanence of the asteroid. Remanence is important in determining an object’s magnetism and the intensity of the magnetic field around it when it formed. What we know of the Solar System’s early magnetic field has been reconstructed from remanence records, many of which come from magnetite.

Some magnetic properties of those particles might have been lost eons ago, but so much more could be gained in the future from what remains.

Nature Communications, 2024.  DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-47798-0

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