The Hayabusa2 spacecraft last week made history after it briefly touched down on the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu. The incredible technological feat could provide to understanding the origins of life on Earth. But the latest image released by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) shows an apparently inexplicable smudge on the asteroid’s surface.
JAXA’s mission to extract surface samples from the Ryugu asteroid and return them to Earth has gone exactly to plan.
Last week witnessed the complex collection phase of the mission.
This saw Hayabusa2 – Japanese for “Peregrine falcon-2” – make its eagerly-anticipated descent to the surface of the one km-wide space rock barrelling 2 billion miles (3.2 billion km) from Earth.
Hayabusa2 fired 5-gram tantalum bullet into the surface of Ryugu at 700 mph to gather samples.
And the resulting debris from the impact was then collected by the probe’s sampler horn.
This extraordinary space sample will then be examined by scientists when the probe returns to Earth in December 2020.
A latest image released by JAXA shows a black smudge at the sample site.
The cause and nature of the darkened area has so far baffled scientists.
A JAXA spokesperson said: “The colour of the region beneath the spacecraft’s shadow differs from the surroundings and has been discoloured by the touchdown.
“At the moment, the reason for the discolouration is unknown but it may be due to the grit that was blown upwards by the spacecraft thrusters or bullet projectile.”
Both theories make sense, and it could be a combination of the two.
It remains unclear, however, if the impact itself caused the discolouration, or if Hayabusa2’s activities disturbed darkened material from the surface.
Or the explanation could even be something else entirely.
Hayabusa2 took the photo with its Optical Navigation Camera about one minute after the touchdown, en route to its home position some 12 miles (12 km) above Ryugu.
Hayabusa2 took the instantly-iconic selfie when it was about 25 metres (82 ft) from the sample site.
Also visible in the photo is the shiny marker providing a reference point for Hayabusa2 as it made its descent.
The JAXA mission planners were hoping to land about 4 to 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) from the marker.
And looking at the 6-metre-wide target area and the dark splotches, it appear Hayabusa2 performed the operation perfectly.
JAXA also released an image showing the area prior to touchdown.
No discolouration can be seen in these photos, meaning Hayabusa2’s activities are most likely responsible for the mysterious shadowy feature.