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March 4, 2024

NASA Finally Unlocks Precious Asteroid Treasure After Months of Struggle

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Jan 19, 2024

After over three months of intense engineering efforts, NASA has finally gained full access to the precious sample collected from asteroid Bennu by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. This marks a major milestone for the ambitious mission to bring back pristine material from an asteroid hundreds of millions of miles away.

Background: OSIRIS-REx’s Historic Mission to Asteroid Bennu

On September 8, 2016, NASA launched the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft on an Atlas V rocket. Its destination – asteroid Bennu, an ancient relic believed to contain organic compounds and molecular precursors that may have seeded life on Earth.

After a two-year journey, OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu in December 2018. For the next two years, it closely studied and mapped the near-Earth carbonaceous asteroid. Bennu was found to be rocky, yet covered in very fine-grained regolith material. In October 2020, the spacecraft successfully descended to the asteroid’s boulder-strewn surface and collected a sample using its specialized Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) arm. Mission controllers later confirmed over 2 pounds (1 kg) of material was collected, far exceeding the minimum requirement.

On May 10, 2021, OSIRIS-REx fired its engines to break out of Bennu’s orbit and began its long journey back to Earth. Over two years later, on September 24, 2023, the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) separated from the main spacecraft and barrelled through Earth’s atmosphere. After deploying parachutes to gently slow its descent, the SRC landed at the Utah Test and Training Range. The capsule contained the TAGSAM sample container with its precious cargo – the first pristine asteroid sample obtained by NASA, and the largest amount of extraterrestrial material brought back to Earth since the Apollo era.

Overcoming Critical Engineering Challenges

While the SRC landing completed a phenomenally successful spaceflight mission, NASA engineers still faced critical hurdles. Two stubborn fasteners held the TAGSAM sample container tightly shut, meaning scientists could not access any of the collected material.

Specialised tools were developed to remove the fasteners without damaging them or the sample inside. A meticulously planned approach was utilised – including extensive testing on ground replicas and intricate disassembly procedures.

On January 11, 2024, two months after landing, NASA announced its team had finally removed the troublesome fasteners. This opened the TAGSAM container and unveiled the first glimpse of Bennu. Using collection cups inside the container, they catalogued over 300 grams of rocks and fine particulate matter. Much more sample material remained stuck in other TAGSAM components for later extraction.

Date Milestone
September 24, 2023 OSIRIS-REx Sample Return Capsule lands on Earth
November 2023 Engineering efforts commence to open stuck TAGSAM container
January 11, 2024 Both stuck fasteners successfully removed
January 11, 2024 onwards Extraction and cataloging of returned sample

This remarkable achievement took intense planning, highly specialised tools, and months of work by engineers and scientists. Their tireless efforts in the face of difficult technical obstacles have finally unlocked the cosmic treasures collected from Bennu.

Understanding Asteroid Origins to Uncover Solar System History

The sample brought back by OSIRIS-REx may hold profound secrets that could reshape our understanding of the solar system’s history and evolution. As one of the most pristine asteroids accessible to spacecraft, Bennu offers a precious time capsule to the early days of our solar neighbourhood over 4.5 billion years ago.

The last time such primordial material was studied directly was during the Apollo missions when astronauts brought back Moon rocks. The Bennu samples are even more primitive and unaltered than lunar material, offering an unprecedented glimpse into the building blocks of planet formation.

By studying Bennu’s chemistry and geology, researchers can better comprehend how asteroids coalesced and later delivered elements for life across the solar system. Important insights will be gained into these cosmic “seed bearers” and their role in the origins of Earth as a habitable world.

Unlocking Secrets from Bennu – What Lies Ahead

With the sample finally accessible, NASA will undertake careful curation so this priceless extraterrestrial cargo can benefit generations of researchers worldwide. Preliminary examination is underway at NASA’s Johnson Space Center before samples get distributed to laboratories across the globe.

Using state-of-the-art instruments, scientists will scrutinise the particles, unlocking secrets held within their crystals and compounds. Key areas of investigation include:

  • Organic chemistry – Studying carbon-based compounds to determine how life’s building blocks arose on asteroids and spread through the early solar system. This can offer clues to life’s origins.
  • Geology – Learning about Bennu’s composition, structure and history to comprehend how planets accumulated from primitive asteroid rubble.
  • Resources – Evaluating if asteroids contain accessible water or metals for future deep space exploration and utilisation.

While NASA has achieved a remarkable feat of planetary science and engineering, OSIRIS-REx itself is not done yet. With plenty of fuel remaining, the intrepid spacecraft has departed Bennu and is now headed towards asteroid Apophis. Due to fly by in 2029, the spacecraft may again attempt a sample collection from this 1,200-foot-wide space rock. This bonus mission can further our insights into asteroids – the primordial precursors to the birth of worlds.

Conclusion

After overcoming stubborn mechanical closures that halted easy access, NASA has finally opened the pristine sample from ancient asteroid Bennu. This marks the successful end of a 20-year round trip mission to visit a mini world thought to hold clues to life’s cosmic origins.

With the treasure now unlocked, scientists have gained precious extraterrestrial material that can reshape our theories on how asteroids seeded Earth with ingredients for life. Meticulous analysis will commence to unpack the geological and chemical secrets trapped within these microscopic particles.

Like the famed Rosetta Stone, this sample of the early solar system may help decipher mysteries about the formation of worlds by decoding messages written into the very fabric of its cosmic constituents. As nature’s time capsules, asteroids could reveal pivotal insights about our planet’s habitability, and perhaps even unravel life’s greatest riddle – how a barren young Earth blossomed with biology billions of years ago.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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