Exploring the Bimodal Solar System via Sample Return from the Main Asteroid Belt: The Case for Revisiting Ceres

Burbine, Thomas H. and Greenwood, Richard C. (2020). Exploring the Bimodal Solar System via Sample Return from the Main Asteroid Belt: The Case for Revisiting Ceres. Space Science Reviews, 216(4), article no. 59.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11214-020-00671-0


Abstract: Sample return from a main-belt asteroid has not yet been attempted, but appears technologically feasible. While the cost implications are significant, the scientific case for such a mission appears overwhelming. As suggested by the “Grand Tack” model, the structure of the main belt was likely forged during the earliest stages of Solar System evolution in response to migration of the giant planets. Returning samples from the main belt has the potential to test such planet migration models and the related geochemical and isotopic concept of a bimodal Solar System. Isotopic studies demonstrate distinct compositional differences between samples believed to be derived from the outer Solar System (CC or carbonaceous chondrite group) and those that are thought to be derived from the inner Solar System (NC or non-carbonaceous group). These two groups are separated on relevant isotopic variation diagrams by a clear compositional gap. The interface between these two regions appears to be broadly coincident with the present location of the asteroid belt, which contains material derived from both groups. The Hayabusa mission to near-Earth asteroid (NEA) (25143) Itokawa has shown what can be learned from a sample-return mission to an asteroid, even with a very small amount of sample. One scenario for main-belt sample return involves a spacecraft launching a projectile that strikes an object and flying through the debris cloud, which would potentially allow multiple bodies to be sampled if a number of projectiles are used on different asteroids. Another scenario is the more traditional method of landing on an asteroid to obtain the sample. A significant range of main-belt asteroids are available as targets for a sample-return mission and such a mission would represent a first step in mineralogically and isotopically mapping the asteroid belt. We argue that a sample-return mission to the asteroid belt does not necessarily have to return material from both the NC and CC groups to viably test the bimodal Solar System paradigm, as material from the NC group is already abundantly available for study. Instead, there is overwhelming evidence that we have a very incomplete suite of CC-related samples. Based on our analysis, we advocate a dedicated sample-return mission to the dwarf planet (1) Ceres as the best means of further exploring inherent Solar System variation. Ceres is an ice-rich world that may be a displaced trans-Neptunian object. We almost certainly do not have any meteorites that closely resemble material that would be brought back from Ceres. The rich heritage of data acquired by the Dawn mission makes a sample-return mission from Ceres logistically feasible at a realistic cost. No other potential main-belt target is capable of providing as much insight into the early Solar System as Ceres. Such a mission should be given the highest priority by the international scientific community.

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