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February 24, 2024

NASA Finally Unlocks Precious Asteroid Treasure After Months of Struggle

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Jan 17, 2024

NASA has finally gained access to the precious sample collected from the asteroid Bennu, overcoming technical challenges that delayed scientists for months. The capsule containing asteroid material was retrieved in 2021 after OSIRIS-REx completed its historic mission to visit the near-Earth asteroid and collect a sample. However, stubborn fasteners on the capsule prevented scientists from accessing the rare cosmic materials until now.

Months-Long Battle With Stuck Fasteners

When the OSIRIS-REx sample capsule returned to Earth in 2021, scientists were eager to study its contents. The capsule contained the largest sample collected from an asteroid, harboring clues about the origins of planets and life. However, their research came to a grinding halt when attempts to open the capsule failed.

Two fasteners securing the capsule’s lid remained stuck despite multiple attempts over several months to remove them. The fasteners were specifically designed to securely contain the precious sample during OSIRIS-REx’s return to Earth. Ironically, they proved too secure for scientists to easily open once back on Earth. With the capsule room sealed, scientists could not use some of their most precise instruments to study the contents.

| Attempt Date | Attempt Method | Result |
|-|-|-|  
| Sept 2021 | automated unscrewing | failed - fasteners remained stuck |
| Oct 2021 | apply solvent to loosen threads | failed - no change |
| Nov 2021 | use angled drivers to apply more torque | damaged fasteners but remained stuck |
| Dec 2021 | apply heat to expand metal | ineffective |

With each unsuccessful attempt, concerns mounted that excessive manipulation could damage the capsule’s valuable contents. By January 2024, opening the capsule had become one of NASA’s highest priorities.

Breakthrough After Creative Mechanical Solution

The turning point came when engineers devised a novel mechanical solution. They attached two tubes to the fastener heads to gain more leverage and provide a better angle of attack. This allowed a powered driver to finally shear off the stubborn fasteners after months of struggle.

“We were finally able to apply enough force to shear off the fasteners while minimizing disturbance of the sample inside,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona.

With the stubborn fasteners removed, engineers finished unsealing the capsule on January 11, 2024. The treasured sample collected from asteroid Bennu was finally accessible to eager scientists.

Unboxing Asteroid Treasure & What’s Next

The capsule contains over 2 pounds of rocky material gathered from Bennu’s surface. After initial photographs and scans, scientists will soon begin extracting portions for detailed study.

“We expect these initial analyses will reveal unprecedented details about asteroid composition and structure, furthering our understanding about the early solar system,” said NASA Planetary Science Division Director Lori Glaze.

Now that the sample is unsealed, scientists can unleash the full power of laboratory instruments for analysis:

  • Mass spectrometry will reveal chemical composition
  • Microscopy will image fine particle structure
  • X-ray diffraction will expose mineral content

In addition to composition details, researchers also hope studying Bennu’s materials will uncover insights about asteroids’ histories and our solar system’s origins. Key questions they hope to answer include:

  • What conditions and processes created asteroids like Bennu billions of years ago?
  • Did Bennu contribute organic compounds supporting early life on Earth?
  • Can studying the sample improve models predicting Bennu’s future orbit and impact risk?
| Instrument Class | Example Analyses |  
|-|-|
| Spectroscopy | measure elemental & molecular composition |   
| Diffraction | identify crystalline structures |
| Microscopy | image fine-scale physical properties | 
| Chromatography | separate and quantify organic compounds |

The invaluable Bennu sample will supply scientific discoveries for years to come. As researchers around the globe sharpen their instruments, this rare window into early solar system chemistry stands ready to unlock cosmic secrets about planets, asteroids, and maybe even life itself.

About the OSIRIS-REx Mission

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) launched in 2016 on an audacious mission to visit near-Earth asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft arrived at Bennu in 2018 and spent over 2 years mapping and studying the carbon-rich asteroid.

In 2020, OSIRIS-REx deployed its Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) to the asteroid’s surface. TAGSAM fired a burst of nitrogen gas to stir surface material and collect over 2 pounds of regolith (loose rocky debris). The sample was secured for the return journey to Earth.

OSIRIS-REx began its 2-year return trip in 2021, culminating with the sample capsule parachuting to Utah on September 24, 2021. The capsule and its precious contents remained sealed until engineers finally removed the troublesome fasteners on January 11, 2024.

With the asteroid material now accessible, discoveries about early solar system chemistry and potentially even life’s origins await. OSIRIS-REx shows that when ambitious space exploration pairs with human ingenuity, wondrous cosmic treasures can be uncovered even in the face of stubborn challenges.

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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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