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February 27, 2024

NASA Opens Asteroid Sample, Revealing Alien World Treasures

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Jan 22, 2024

NASA has finally opened the sample container holding asteroid material collected from Bennu, an exciting milestone in the OSIRIS-REx mission. After overcoming technical difficulties, scientists can now begin studying pristine pieces of this ancient asteroid in extraordinary detail.

Return to Earth

On September 24, 2023, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully returned to Earth, parachuting down over Utah with its precious cargo – a capsule containing bits of rock and dust gathered from the surface of asteroid Bennu over 200 million miles away. This sample may hold clues to the origins of our solar system and life on Earth.

Retrieving these asteroid pieces was no easy feat. In 2020, OSIRIS-REx descended to Bennu’s boulder-strewn surface, extending its robotic arm to blow nitrogen gas and stir up surface material. After a few failed attempts, it managed to grab a sizable sample, fulfilling the $800 million mission’s primary goal. The spacecraft then began its long journey back to Earth.

Breaking the Seal

When the capsule arrived at NASA’s Johnson Space Center last September, scientists were eager to peek inside. But the container seal proved extremely stubborn, resisting attempts to open it for months. They tried heating and cooling the titanium capsule to extreme temperatures, and attaching various devices to try prying it open.

Finally on January 19th, a specially designed handling fixture succeeded in breaking the seal and splitting the container open at last. NASA released some of the first images showing asteroid material packed inside later the same day.

“That wasdramatic and exciting. At times I thought we might not get it open,” said OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta. “It was quite emotional to see glimpses of Bennu again.”

Otherworldly Treasure Revealed

The opened capsule has unveiled a sizable sample – abundant grains, rocks, and dust closely packed into the container. Early photos show Bennu’s dark porous rocks and fine regolith in intricate detail, looking almost exactly like the asteroid’s surface.

It appears portions stuck together during the high-speed return to Earth, creating aggregate clumps. One particularly large cluster weighs over an ounce. Scientists also spotted a rock pressed up against the capsule window nearly an inch across – larger than expected.

Sample mass 5-10 ounces
Largest rock 0.8 inches
Organic compounds Unknown

While designed to collect 2 ounces of material, they now have over 150% of the minimum, possibly up to 10 ounces to study. This is a researcher’s dream, allowing more extensive analysis than imagined when planning the audacious mission over a decade ago.

Clues to Solar System’s History

Asteroids are remnants from early stages of planetary formation over 4 billion years ago. Studying pieces of one up close offers an unprecedented glimpse into solar system history and chemistry.

Bennu interests scientists because its carbon-rich composition resembles life-forming meteorites that crashed to Earth. It also contains natural resources, water, and organic compounds necessary for life. Learning about asteroid composition helps trace the origins of Earth’s water, life’s ingredients, and maybe even life itself.

Researchers at Johnson will soon distribute sub-samples to specialized labs across the globe. Each will apply different equipment and techniques to tease out every detail possible about asteroid’s age, structure, and chemistry. Their work may reveal processes linking asteroids to Earth’s formation, extinct comets, and proto-planetary disks when the sun was young. We may finally confirm exactly how asteroids delivered the water and carbon-based compounds seeding life on Earth.

Next Steps

While the sample remains safely sealed, scientists have begun painstaking preparatory work for its distribution and analysis. A preliminary examination team wearing protective clean suits will catalog every grain before other labs receive sub-samples.

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” said OSIRIS-REx project manager Rich Burns, viewing the unboxing via video link. “That sample represents every person that’s worked on this mission for the last 12 years.”

It will take months before research conclusions start trickling out. But this marks the beginning of a new era advancing our knowledge of asteroids, the solar system’s beginnings, and maybe even life’s origins. While OSIRIS-REx’s main mission ends here, the spacecraft may get a new assignment – NASA is assessing options to visit another asteroid called Apophis.

For now, researchers are celebrating a mission accomplished and eagerly anticipating Bennu’s secrets soon unlocked. The wait is over, and alien world samples are finally here.

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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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