NASA has finally gained full access to the largest sample collected from near-Earth asteroid Bennu, after months of struggle with stuck fasteners on the capsule container delayed scientists from opening it.
Background: OSIRIS-REx Mission to Collect Pieces of Ancient Asteroid
The sample capsule contains rocks and dust collected in 2020 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during its historic mission to land on the asteroid Bennu and gather material from its surface.
Bennu is an ancient asteroid more than 4.5 billion years old, and scientists believe its rocks and particles contain invaluable information about the early formation of our solar system. Studying the composition of the material could revolutionize our understanding of planets, stars, and life itself.
OSIRIS-REx Mission Timeline
| Launched | 2016 |
| Arrived at Bennu | 2018 |
| Collected sample | 2020 |
| Departed Bennu | 2021 |
| Returned to Earth | 2023 |
The probe collected over 2 ounces of asteroid material, far exceeding the mission’s minimum requirement. It then placed the sample inside a specialized container and began the long journey back to deliver it safely to Earth.
Capsule Finally Lands on Earth, But Can’t Open Yet
Last September, the OSIRIS-REx capsule parachuted down over Utah, achieving the first ever round-trip to grab pieces of an asteroid. It marked a monumental human accomplishment.
Scientists were eager to open the capsule and begin analyzing the pristine pre-solar system samples. However, initial attempts to unlatch the container lid were unsuccessful.
Two tension straps with stubborn fasteners could not be opened, blocking access to the majority of the precious cargo. Only a small spill of material that leaked upon landing has been retrieved so far.
Breaking News: NASa Engineers Finally Clear Obstacle
This week, engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center were finally able to disengage the problematic tension straps and their stubborn fasteners. Now the agency can open the capsule fully and remove all the collected asteroid material.
“We have access to the entirety of the sample,” said OSIRIS-REx curation lead Kevin Righter. “The capsule worked exactly as designed, protecting the sample.”
Researchers will first work to catalog and photograph the samples. Further down the road, portions will be sent to laboratories worldwide so hundreds of scientists can analyze the asteroid contents in detail.
Sample Curation Steps
|Catalog volume + properties
|Distribute subsample portions
The material will be studied using a wide array of advanced scientific instruments. Experiments will reveal aspects about Bennu related to its chemistry, mineralogy, ages, and more. Peer-reviewed papers will publish findings that can be replicated or built upon by other groups.
Treasure Trove of Information
The unprecedented sample offers an astronomical bounty of opportunities to analyze the chemistry of carbon-rich asteroids, which may have delivered key compounds necessary for the origin of life on Earth.
Scientists will examine molecular and mineral properties to better understand early solar system conditions, like temperature, radiation levels, water alteration processes, and more. Radioactive dating of Bennu’s materials will offer more precise estimates for when the asteroid initially formed over 4.5 billion years ago.
Ultimately, insights from these extraterrestrial samples will guide models and theories about the initial stages of planet formation during our solar system’s infancy – knowledge that can’t be obtained anywhere else.
What Happens Next
Now that engineers have successfully opened the sample container, 2021 promises to be an exciting year for NASA and planetary science.
The agency will take great care to distribute subsections of the material to special facilities around the world. Then hundreds of determined researchers will race to probe the contents with cutting-edge technology.
Findings from these one-of-a-kind asteroids bits will start trickling out before the end of the year. But it will likely require decades of cumulative teamwork before scientists can fully analyze all the material and implications.
Each microscopic grain, preserved for billions of years in icy space, tells a story about cosmic events long ago. Unlocking their secrets today could better explain our place in the universe – and how we got here.
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