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Ryugu, Hayabusa and Mascot

Mon, July 09, 2018 09:19

By the Gazette Editorial Board

Ryugu, Hayabusa and Mascot may largely sound unfamiliar words, but they nevertheless are three names that will continue to retain special status in the history of scientific thinking and space exploration.

The first is the name of a diamond-shaped asteroid with a tiny radius of no more than 400 metres orbiting the sun at approximately a 290-million-kilometre distance from Earth. It is neither a well-sighted moon nor as huge a planet as Mars to draw wide scientific community appeal. And as far as common knowledge is concerned, only a minimum level, if any at all, of public awareness of the existence of this small space rock has existed.

The second, Hayabusa, is the name of the Japanese spacecraft that drew close to Ryugu last week after a long journey that had started four years earlier, exactly on December 3, 2014. For nearly four years since then, Hayabusa has travelled in full speed to cover the 290-million-kilometre-long distance. And for nearly a year and a half as of now, Hayabusa will survey the asteroid’s surface and dig a crater there in the hope of gathering data and building authentic knowledge of the composition of the asteroid. Some of us may question the wisdom of dedicating such a strenuous effort for five and a half years to closing in on such a tiny space object at a time when space exploration is obviously proceeding somehow slowly and shyly to reach large and Earth-like planets. Then comes Mascot, abbreviating Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout, a German-built instrument specifically designed for the survey and sample collection tasks that Hayabusa will undertake.

There certainly and clearly is something amazing about the Hayabusa mission. For the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to spend four years tracking and monitoring Hayabusa as it travelled the 290-million-kilometre journey to its destination, let alone the very many years it took to design and build the spacecraft and the funds it allocated to the project, means that the effort must have been conceived of as scientifically and technologically worth it. Literature available online suggests that since asteroids are believed to be essentially leftover building materials from the formation of the Solar System, a study of real samples collected from Ryugu would most likely unveil some clues to understanding how the Solar System, of which our planet is a part, originated and the modalities of the building process of at least some planets. Such clues may probably not be monetisable, at least for the foreseeable future. Epistemologically, however, the value of the pursuit is almost immeasurable. An insightful reading of the Ryugu-Hayabusa-Mascot mission would unveil that underlying the engagement in such an amazing scientific and technological endeavour is the time-old human longing for getting to know the physics of life on Earth and in the outer space. It is the same longing that stands behind almost all the major scientific theories and discoveries that our world has come to know.