NASA has finally opened the precious sample return capsule from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which collected pieces of asteroid Bennu in 2020. The capsule parachuted down to Earth in September 2022, delivering the first pristine pieces of an asteroid ever collected in space. After over a year of careful preparation, scientists have now accessed the cache inside the capsule’s sample canister.
Over 16 Ounces of Asteroid Treasure Revealed
The canister contained over 16 ounces (500 grams) of rocky material from the ancient carbonaceous asteroid. On January 18th, 2023, NASA specialists at the Johnson Space Center used specialized tools to cut open the capsule and remove the canister’s lid.
Cameras peered inside the container, revealing a trove of dark cosmic rubble tagged with sample site coordinates. NASA released stunning super-high-resolution photos this week, finally unveiling the complete sample from asteroid Bennu.
“We were jumping with joy, hugging each other. It was emotional and exciting at the same time.” said NASA OSIRIS-REx team lead Dante Lauretta. “We all felt awestruck when we first saw these pictures.”
The material inside looks like a pile of small black gemstones. It contains a scientific treasure – presolar grains over 4.5 billion years old that formed in dying stars. These pristine pieces of our solar system’s early history will help unravel clues about the origins of planets and life itself.
Composition of Returned Bennu Sample
|Fine-grained chondritic meteorite fragments
|Organic carbon compounds
Estimated composition based on spectral data. Actual percentages to be determined by laboratory analysis.
Struggling With Stubborn Fasteners
The process of safely extracting the cosmic cache from OSIRIS-REx was far more difficult than NASA engineers anticipated.
Firstly, the spacecraft collected over 2.5 times the mass planned, making the capsule heavier than expected on descent. Then when specialists tried to open the sample canister in November, its fasteners refused to budge.
Ultimately NASA decided on a meticulous operation to drill small holes for relieving pressure, followed by cutting through the spacecraft hardware itself using a rotary grinder tool.
“We tried everything to get those bits open,” said OSIRIS-REx curation lead Kevin Righter. “In the end we just had to be more destructive.”
Onward for Scientific Study
Now that the Bennu payload is finally freed from containment, an international team will get hands-on access to analyze the extraterrestrial materials.
Researchers at NASA’s curation facility have already catalogued over 5,000 individual pieces. Detailed cosmic mineralogy and geochemistry investigations will commence shortly.
Additionally, pieces of Bennu will be sent to over 200 organizations worldwide, including top universities and corporate laboratories, ensuring broad access for researchers across many disciplines.
“These samples are going to transform our understanding of the early solar system.” said OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta.
Long Journey From menace to Science Goldmine
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at near-Earth asteroid Bennu in December 2018 after a 2 year journey. There it orbited and studied the carbon-rich body for nearly 2.5 years.
Bennu was chosen specifically because it is a potentially hazardous asteroid. Every 6 years, its orbit brings it dangerously close to Earth.
In 2020, NASA decided to grab some samples from Bennu to better understand objects that could impact our planet. Thus on October 20, 2020, OSIRIS-REx briefly touched down on the asteroid’s boulder-strewn surface, ingesting loose regolith material.
Bennu Asteroid Origin and Composition
|Carbonaceous (C-type) asteroid
|Near-Earth object with close approaches to Earth
|~500 meters diameter
|7.8 x 10^10 kg
|Extremely rocky with many boulders
|Hydrated clay minerals, organics, volatiles, presolar grains
|Over 4.5 billion years
|Leftover primordial material, likely from main asteroid belt
The spacecraft then began its long journey back to Earth, finally ejecting the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) on September 24, 2022. The SRC parachuted down over Utah on September 24, 2022 at 7:33 p.m. EDT.
Studying an Analog For Carbonaceous Asteroids
Bennu is an important analog for understanding the populations of carbonaceous asteroids thought to contain organic compounds and water. These dark asteroids likely seeded Earth with prebiotic chemistry early in its history.
“Bennu is a time capsule offering scientists a snapshot of the early solar system.” said Lori Glaze, NASA Planetary Science Division director.
Data from Bennu could help explain how life may have arisen on Earth and possibly elsewhere. The materials inside the returned capsule will fill in many missing details about these cosmic objects.
What’s Next for Asteroid Exploration
The successful OSIRIS-REx mission paves the way for more ambitious sample return projects. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are planning future joint missions to retrieve material from Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Additionally, NASA has greenlit a mission called Janus to explore two binary asteroid systems – 1996 FG3 and 1991 VH – launching in 2029. Its objectives include testing new technologies for planetary defense against asteroid impacts.
As for OSIRIS-REx itself, the intrepid spacecraft still has life left in it after depositing its precious sample capsule.
NASA has funded an extended mission known as OSIRIS-APEX. The craft is now on course back to asteroid Bennu, expected to return in 2035 to map more sample sites and provide valuable flyby data support for future missions.
After 15 years from mission conception to fruition, OSIRIS-REx has expanded our horizons beyond Earth. The pristine pieces of carbonaceous asteroid Bennu will open up a scientific treasure chest of knowledge about our solar system’s early chemistry and planetary formation. With so much meticulous effort to bring just 2 ounces of cosmic rubble safely back to Earth, the contents of this precious capsule will surely yield discoveries to last generations.
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