Over the last few decades, NASA has managed to find a number of unusual things in our solar system. Among these discoveries, perhaps the most novel have been the odd shapes of various asteroids that are found to occasionally traverse our galactic region.
While the now famous, cigar-shaped ‘Oumuamua is probably first to come to mind, other oddly-shaped spacefaring objects have been discovered in recent times, which are teaching us new things about space objects, their origins, and formation.
One recent example was afforded us by Japan’s space mission Hayabusa2, which managed to capture photographs of an asteroid of unusual appearance from a distance of just 40 kilometers. Dubbed “Ryugu” by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the object is considered a potentially hazardous object possessing a rare kind of reflectivity (otherwise known as “spectral type,” the official designation used by astronomers) defined as Cg. This means the surface of the asteroid has a “linear, generally featureless spectra,” with varying degrees of UV absorption.
Since JAXA released its photos of Ryugu, there has been much discussion about the object’s unusual appearance. Specifically, its polyhedral shape has been likened by some to a multi-sided die, the likes of which are used in the classic fantasy roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons.
Ryugu’s shape isn’t the only association it has with myth and lore surrounding dragons; according to Spaceflight Now, its name is also evocative of these mythical creatures, borrowed from “an undersea dragon’s palace visited by Urashima Taro, a fisherman in a Japanese folk story who brings back a mysterious treasure box from the underwater castle.”
Hayabusa2 was launched in 2014, and in the days since photographs were obtained of Ryugu’s unusual shape, the spacecraft has closed its distance to approximately 20 km, with the objective of landing and extracting material for analysis, which it will retrieve and bring to Earth by the end of 2020.
In a statement, Yuichi Tsuda, the Hayabusa2 Project Manager, said of the odd space rock:
“The shape of Ryugu is now revealed. From a distance, Ryugu initially appeared round, then gradually turned into a square before becoming a beautiful shape similar to fluorite. Now, craters are visible, rocks are visible and the geographical features are seen to vary from place to place. This form of Ryugu is scientifically surprising and also poses a few engineering challenges.”
Tsuda further noted that “The Project Team is fascinated by the appearance of Ryugu,” expressing excitement on behalf of his colleagues. “I feel this amazing honor as we proceed with the mission operations.”
Ryugu may not be the strangest space rock we’ve managed to discover (especially when compared with objects like ‘Oumuamua, the newly-designated comet mentioned at the beginning of this post). Nonetheless, it bears enough unusual characteristics that its further study may bear some promise for new discoveries pertaining to off-planet affairs in our universe.