The DLR site in Bremen

Small fragments of carbon-rich asteroids are too fragile to survive entry into Earth’s atmosphere

MASCOT confirms what scientists have long suspected

15 July 2019

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  • Untersuchte Region auf Ryugu
    Investigated region on Ryugu

    Close-up of the rock examined by MASCOT: The yellow arrow shows the direction of the incident light, and the dotted line separates the observed stone from the background. The red area shows the part of the rock where the radiometer MARA measured the surface temperature, the dotted line here shows a ledge. The scale in the centre of the image shows the dimensions at this distance from the camera. The image was acquired by the DLR camera MASCAM on MASCOT.

  • MASCOT%2dRadiometer MARA
    MASCOT radiometer MARA

    The MARA radiometer is used to measure the surface temperature on Ryugu in high resolution as well as the temperature differences during a full day/night cycle on the asteroid.

  • Die Oberfläche Ryugus aus wenigen Metern Entfernung aufgenommen
    The surface of Ryugus from a few metres

    The approximately 20 images acquired with the MASCAM camera on the MASCOT lander during the descent show an extremely rugged surface covered with numerous angular rocks. Ryugu, a four-and-a-half billion year-old C-type asteroid has shown the scientists something they had not expected, even though more than a dozen asteroids have been explored up close by space probes. On this close-up, there are no areas covered with dust – the regolith that results from the fragmentation of rocks due to exposure to micrometeorite impacts and high-energy cosmic particles over billions of years. The image from the turbulent rotating MASCOT lander was taken at a height of about 10 to 20 metres.

  • Dicht am Asteroiden Ryugu
    Close to the Ryugu asteroid

    On 20 July 2018, the Optical Navigation Camera – Telescopic (ONC-T) of the Japanese Hayabusa2 space probe took this image of the Ryugu asteroid from a distance of six kilometres. Clearly visible are the numerous large rocks on the asteroid’s surface as well as the large craters in the middle of the image. One pixel corresponds with 60 centimetres.

  • Asteroidenlander MASCOT
    Asteroid lander MASCOT

    A total of four instruments are installed within the 30 x 30 x 20-centimetre lander. A DLR radiometer and camera, together with a spectrometer from the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale and a magnetometer from the TU Braunschweig, are set to examine the mineralogical and geological composition of the asteroid’s surface and gauge its surface temperature as well as the asteroid’s magnetic field. A built-in swing arm gives MASCOT the required propulsion to make jumping manoeuvres over the surface.

  • Asteroidenlander MASCOT an Bord der Raumsonde Hayabusa2
    Asteroid lander MASCOT on board the Hayabusa2 space probe

    The Japanese Hayabusa2 space probe has completed a 3200-million-kilometre long journey carrying the German-French lander MASCOT (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout).

Ryugu and other asteroids of the common ‘C-class’ consist of more porous material than was previously thought. Small fragments of their material are therefore too fragile to survive entry into the atmosphere in the event of a collision with Earth. This has revealed the long-suspected cause of the deficit of this meteorite type in finds on Earth. Researchers at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) have come to this conclusion in a scientific paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy. The results are based on high-resolution measurements of the surface temperature with the DLR radiometer MARA on board the German-French Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout (MASCOT) lander. On 3 October 2018, as part of the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission, MASCOT descended onto the almost one-kilometre-diameter asteroid Ryugu and sent spectacular images and physical measurements from the surface back to Earth.

“Ryugu surprised us,” says Matthias Grott, Principal Investigator for the MARA radiometer experiment at the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin and lead author of the study. “On the asteroid, we observed only larger fragments that are highly porous and probably very fragile.” Earlier telescopic infrared light curves of such carbon-rich asteroids acquired from Earth had been interpreted by researchers studying their thermal properties as bodies covered in sand- to pebble-sized particles. In total, 21 DLR scientists from institutes in Berlin, Bremen and Cologne participated in the study, together with international partners. “MASCOT has brought together DLR’s broad range of expertise in space research – from design, development and testing to experience in the scientific exploration of the Solar System,” says Hansjörg Dittus, DLR Executive Board Member for Space Research and Technology. “The first published results are impressive proof of this.”

Deficit in meteorite finds reveals the protection provided by Earth's atmosphere

Until now, only a few chondritic meteorites found on Earth have been identified as fragments of C-type asteroids, which are very common in the Solar System ('C' is the chemical symbol for the element carbon). Chondrules are small, millimetre-sized rock globules that formed in the solar nebula 4.5 billion years ago and are considered to be the basic building blocks of planet formation. "We can now confirm that fragments of these asteroids are very likely to break up further when they enter Earth’s atmosphere, and then usually burn up completely. This means that only the largest fragments reach the Earth’s surface,” explains Grott. “That is why meteorites from this type of asteroid are so rarely found on Earth.”

The good news is that, because of this, Earth’s atmosphere offers increased protection from C-type asteroids, which account for 75 percent of all asteroids. Ryugu is a C-class asteroid, a carbon-rich representative of the oldest bodies in the 4.5 billion-year-old Solar System, and thus a building block of planet formation. It is one of the oldest of the 17,000 asteroids with orbits known to intersect that of Earth. However, further research is necessary to determine the maximum asteroid size for which this atmospheric protection is effective.

The international research team led by Matthias Grott determined the increase and decrease of the surface temperature over the course of the asteroid’s roughly seven-and-a-half-hour diurnal cycle. This was accomplished by measuring the infrared radiation emitted by the surface during the day and at night, using the MARA radiometer. The MARA measurements made it possible to infer the thermal properties and density of the material. The data from MASCOT were transmitted to the Japanese Hayabusa2 spacecraft. The craft was located at an observing position three kilometres above the asteroid’s surface. From there, MASCOT sent all measurement and operational data to Earth.

MASCOT landed on asteroid Ryugu on 3 October 2018 by free falling at walking pace. Six minutes after separating from Hayabusa2 at an altitude of 42 metres, the lander touched down on the asteroid’s surface having followed a ballistic trajectory. MASCOT bounced back up several metres, before the 10-kilogram experiment package finally came to rest. A rotating swing arm allowed MASCOT to turn to the 'correct' side and ‘hop’ across the surface. In total, MASCOT was active on Ryugu for 17 hours, one hour longer than anticipated.

The gravitational attraction of Ryugu is 66,500 times weaker than that of Earth, so the small amount of momentum produced by the arm was sufficient. This technical innovation for an unconventional form of mobility on an asteroid surface was used for the first time in the history of space exploration as part of the Hayabusa2 mission. The Hayabusa2 mission on Ryugu will continue until the end of 2019, with the goal of returning samples of the asteroid material to Earth by 2020. On 11 July, Hayabusa2 successfully completed the second touchdown operation on the asteroid.

About the Hayabusa2 mission and MASCOT

Hayabusa2 is a Japanese space agency (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; JAXA) mission to the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. The German-French lander MASCOT carried on board Hayabusa2 was developed by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) and built in close cooperation with the French space agency CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales). The scientific experiments on board MASCOT were devised by DLR, the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale and the Technical University of Braunschweig. The MASCOT lander and its experiments are operated and controlled by DLR with support from CNES and in constant interaction with the Hayabusa2 team.

The DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen was responsible for developing and testing the lander together with CNES. The DLR Institute of Composite Structures and Adaptive Systems in Braunschweig was responsible for the stable structure of the lander. The DLR Robotics and Mechatronics Center in Oberpfaffenhofen developed the swing arm that allowed MASCOT to hop on the asteroid. The DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin contributed the MASCAM camera and the MARA radiometer. The asteroid lander was monitored and operated from the MASCOT Control Center in the Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC) at the DLR site in Cologne.

Last modified:
15/07/2019 17:45:28

Contacts

 

Falk Dambowsky
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

Media Relations

Tel.: +49 2203 601-3959
Dr Matthias Grott
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

DLR Institute of Planetary Research

Tel.: +49 30 67055-419
Prof.Dr. Ralf Jaumann
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

Institute of Planetary Research, Planetary Geology

Tel.: +49 30 67055-400

Fax: +49 30 67055-402
Dr Tra-Mi Ho
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

DLR Institute of Space Systems

Tel.: +49 421 24420-1171