Taking off: Geology chair Harold Connolly Jr.’s second mission to space

Taking off: Geology chair Harold Connolly Jr.’s second mission to space

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Artist's rendering of Hayabusa2 space craft courtesy of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Feet planted firmly on the ground, Dr. Harold Connolly Jr. has his thoughts tuned toward the sky.

Connolly, founding chairperson of Rowan’s Department of Geology within the School of Earth & Environment, is a co-investigator of a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) mission, which in early July reached the asteroid Ryugu via the spaceship Hayabusa2.

He is also a co-investigator with the title of mission sample scientist for OSIRIS-REx, a NASA spaceship en route to the asteroid Bennu.

The robotic missions are independent but share a common goal – to collect samples from asteroids so scientists may better understand them and, by extension, the composition, creation and existence of other planetary bodies, including Earth.

Connolly attended the Japanese Geosciences Union meeting May 19-25, a program that enabled him to consult with other members of the Hayabusa2 mission regarding the status and progress of the spaceship as it rocketed toward Ryugu. Roughly the size of a small SUV, the vessel this month will touch down briefly on the asteroid in three different locations, scoop up samples from its surface and return to Earth in 2020.

One of several geologists attached to the Hayabusa2 project, Connolly said that by analyzing material collected from an asteroid in space – as opposed to studying meteorites that fall to Earth – scientists develop a truer understanding of how the celestial bodies move and what they’re made of.

“Once a meteorite comes through the atmosphere it begins to get contaminated,” Connolly said. “Atmospheric water begins to interact immediately so there’s no such thing as a pristine sample on Earth.”

Significantly, he said, there’s no way of knowing if prebiotic compounds – materials that may be contained in asteroids and may have supported life – were lost as the object passed through the fiery cauldron of Earth’s atmosphere.

“By going and collecting samples in space, we may find differences that may help us better understand the origins of life and (phenomena) like water on Earth,” Connolly said.

He said Hayabusa2 follows the 2003 mission of JAXA’s Hayabusa spaceship, which returned to Earth in 2010 with a sample of material from a small near-Earth asteroid named 25143 Itokawa. Like its predecessor, Hayabusa2 won’t exactly “land” on the asteroid, an object slightly less than half a mile wide, but will get very close, lower a collection horn to grab a sample of surface material, and tuck it back up into the craft.

Not quite like in the movies

Connolly said that when the spacecraft and asteroid meet, they’ll both be moving at tens of thousands of miles per hour and will have contact for just a few seconds.

“It’s not a Bruce Willis movie,” he said. “This will happen very fast. The collector horn drops down, catches gravel and the samples come up.”

Once the craft returns to Earth with its payload, Connolly will be part of the sample analysis team, using state-of-the-art instruments to determine what the asteroid is made of.

Separately, he’ll have primary responsibility for analyzing the OSIRIS-REx payload when that craft returns to Earth in 2023. He and his team are also in charge of producing two of the four maps for sample site selection for sample collection on Bennu.

While the unmanned space missions aren’t exactly like storylines explored in Armageddon, Deep Impact and other meteorite-hits-Earth disaster movies, they’re not completely dissimilar, either.

After all, a massive meteorite that struck the planet some 65 million years ago off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs. As recently as 2013, a large meteorite struck in a rural part of Siberia, letting loose an explosion with the destructive power of 450 kilotons of TNT.

Connolly said that by understanding how asteroids move in space, by comprehending their composition and properties, scientists have the best chance of mitigating damage when a big one does threaten to become a meteorite, crash the planet’s atmosphere and fall to Earth.

The problem, he said, is that scientists can monitor only a tiny fraction of the number of asteroids blasting through space all the time and, occasionally, one gets through.

Whether or not an approaching object could be stopped, even with advanced warning, is another question.

 “Are we in danger all the time of a major asteroid strike? Yes we are,” he said with a nervous laugh. “The asteroid belt is a collection of planetary debris containing millions of pieces and it’s constantly in flux.”

Connolly said Hayabusa2, like all space missions, brings to bear the expertise of specialists across a wide range of disciplines including geologists, physicists, chemists, planetary scientists and engineers.

Connolly is the recipient of the Antarctic Service Medal from the U.S. government, has an asteroid named over him, 6761 Haroldconnolly, and is co-discoverer of the third mineral to form in the Solar System, Krotite.

For more information, visit the Hayabusa2 Wikipedia page, the official OSIRIS-REx site and Dr. Connolly’s personal web page.