Asteroid dust said to resolve a conundrum

In September 2005 a Japanese space probe, Hayabusa, twice landed lightly on the small (700 m long) asteroid Itokawa that habitually crosses the orbit of Mars. The plan was to scoop up a substantial amount of its rubbly surface and return it for lab analysis. In the event the main sampling device malfunctioned. The dismayed Hayabusa team were mollified to some extent by the second landing impact fortuitously directing dust particles up to 0.2 mm across into the sampler. After Hayabusa landed safely in Australia on 13 June 2010, the team thankfully recovered 1574 tiny grains. Most were made of single minerals: olivine, pyroxene, feldspar (including 14 alkali feldspar grains), sulfides, chromite, Ca phosphate and iron-nickel alloy. About 450 were silicate mixtures some containing K-bearing halite (NaCl) (Nakamura, T. and 21 others. Itokawa dust particles: a direct link between S-type asteroids and ordinary chondrites. Science, v. 333, p. 1113-1116  – followed by 5 other papers from the Hayabusa team in the same issue). The sample analyses clearly show that Itokawa chemically and mineralogically resembles ordinary LL chondrites that make up most meteorites found on Earth.

Hardly a surprise, then… Yet it was, for Itokawa is an S-type asteroid – the most common – whose spectra do not match those of ordinary chondrite meteorites despite the logic that commonly found meteorites ought to come from the break-up of commonly seen asteroids. S-type asteroids have annoyed astronomers for decades because of their cryptic appearance, and now they are broadly relieved. Any object floating around the inner Solar System for billions of years inevitably undergoes a process for which terrestrial weathering is a metaphor; it is affected by the stream of charged particles that constitutes the solar wind, by bumping other bodies and attracting debris from such collisions. The Itokawa dust particles turn out to have extremely thin veneers of sulfide and metallic blobs on the scale of a few nanometres that are thought to result from condensation of matter vaporised either by tiny impacts or the solar wind. This veneer gives Itokawa and probably other S-type meteorites their irritatingly uniform reddish colour. It strikes me that there is a problem here: all asteroids, no matter what their mineralogy and chemistry, would be subject to the same kind of process and end up with a similar veneer. Itakawa may well be an ordinary chondrite, but what about all the other S-type asteroids?

See also: Kerr, R.A. 2011. Hayabusa gets to the bottom of deceptive asteroid cloaking. Science, v. 333, p. 1081.


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