Argonne Distinguished Fellow Esen Ercan Alp is leading the research team using the ultra-bright X-rays of the Advanced Photon Source, a baseball-field-sized particle accelerator located at Argonne, to examine the asteroid samples. Alp and his colleagues worked for years to be included among the international group of scientists taking a first earthly look at these fragments.
“This is very exciting,” said Alp. “We’ve been preparing for this project for two years. We’ve been practicing our X-ray techniques on samples from meteorites that fell to Earth, but they were just a rehearsal for the real thing.”
The Advanced Photon Source is the only U.S. facility chosen to study these fragments, and according to Alp, that’s because of a particular X-ray technique he and his team specialize in: Mössbauer spectroscopy. Named after German physicist Rudolf Mössbauer, this technique is highly sensitive to tiny changes in the chemistry of samples, and it allows scientists to determine the chemical composition of these fragments particle by particle. It is a technique Argonne has been developing since the 1960s, and the laboratory is a world leader in its use.
Over an initial series of observations in June and July, the team—which includes beamline scientist Barbara Lavina of the University of Chicago and Argonne and physicist Jiyong Zhao—took readings of 25 different spots on these fragments using X-ray scattering methods at beamline 3-ID-B at the Advanced Photon Source. In September, the fragments will return to Argonne and the team will take more extensive readings using Mössbauer spectroscopy techniques.
Lavina, whose background is in geology, is particularly excited by the chance to study rocks that are literally not of this earth and would not have survived a journey to Earth if not safely stored in a spacecraft.
She noted that the technique the team used is designed to closely investigate the state of iron in samples like these.
“Iron is amongst the finest record-keepers of a rock’s history,” Lavina said. “We will have a unique chance to unravel a key piece of the puzzle that is the formation and evolution of our solar system.”
The thrill of being among the first to even see these asteroid fragments is only amplified by their fantastic voyage from deep space. Just getting the Hayabusa2 module to 162173 Ryugu took more than three years. The module landed on the asteroid in June 2018 and proceeded to survey it for a year and a half.