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This is what an asteroid looks like under a microscope

Japan’s first Hayabusa mission to visit an asteroid launched back in 2003. It was a mission fraught with peril and technical challenges, but it succeeded in bringing a little bit of the asteroid Itokawa back to Earth. 

The European Space Agency shared a microscope view of a grain of Itokawa on Wednesday and it’s both familiar and a bit alien.

This tiny piece of asteroid Itokawa appears jagged under a microscope.


The miniscule piece of rock sits on a microscopic support, and the photo shows its sharp edges. ESA researcher Fabrice Cipriani says the jagged nature of the asteroid grain is due to a lack of water or friction that could wear down the edges. 

Scientists around the world, including some from the ESA, are studying tiny bits of the asteroid, which landed back on Earth in 2010. Much of the research is focused on the mineralogy and composition of the asteroid, but this particular grain is part of a study of its electrostatic properties. This information can help guide the design of instruments used to investigate asteroids and tell us more about the space rocks’ surface environments.

Hayabusa managed to bring back 1,500 grains of the asteroid it visited. ESA describes them as “extremely precious,” but researchers may soon have more asteroid particles to investigate.  

Japan’s space agency JAXA is currently in the middle of a follow-up asteroid mission called Hayabusa2. As with the original mission, this new spacecraft will attempt to collect samples of the asteroid Ryugu in order to return them to Earth for study. 

Hayabusa2 rendezvoused with Ryugu in June and is scheduled to return to its home planet in 2020.

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