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March 4, 2024

NASA Overcomes Obstacle to Unlock Historic Asteroid Samples

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Jan 12, 2024

NASA has cleared a major hurdle to access the largest sample of asteroid material collected in space. The sample was gathered from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and has been secured in a return capsule since 2021. However, the capsule’s lid was held shut by two stuck fasteners, preventing scientists from accessing the precious extraterrestrial cargo.

Successful Procedure to Open Sample Canister

On January 11th, 2024, NASA engineers finally managed to open the spacecraft’s sample collection head, which contains rocks and dust gathered from the surface of the 1,700-foot-wide asteroid. As described by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:

After troubleshooting over the past year, the mission team created a plan to relieve tension from the two stubborn fasteners that held shut the capsule containing pieces of ancient asteroid Bennu. The team implemented the first part this week, successfully relieving tension from one fastener.

While one fastener remains stuck, relieving tension from the first allows for the removal of the capsule’s lid and access to the sample inside.

“I’m very glad to report that operation was successful,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “We do have access to the sample.”

Largest Asteroid Sample Returned by NASA

The fragile cargo contains rocks and dust that scientists estimate weigh around 2 pounds (1 kilogram). If confirmed, this would be the largest sample return from space since the Apollo program.

“This is a big win for the team,” Lauretta said. “We have overcome one of the final hurdles preventing us from gaining access to the pristine carbon-rich material the spacecraft collected from the surface of asteroid Bennu.”

According to NASA, the sample may hold clues to the origins of our solar system and the source of water and organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth.

Quick Facts on OSIRIS-REx Mission
Spacecraft: OSIRIS-REx
Destination: Asteroid Bennu
Sample collected: 2020
Sample mass: ~2 lbs (1 kg) estimated
Return capsule reached Earth: 2021
Capsule opened: January 2024

Overcoming Initial Fastener Issues

The OSIRIS-REx mission team had been working on options to open the capsule since early 2023 when tension was detected in the fastener screws during testing on Earth. Lauretta described the complexity of the task:

“The hardware holding the sample return capsule closed was not designed to be opened after the capsule was sealed in space. So this type of operation – to mechanically relieve the tension – is new for our team.”

After extensive work, engineers settled on a plan to relieve the tension by backing off the fastener screws in a careful procedure while monitoring any effects with sensors and cameras.

“The reversed torque approach was successful beyond the team’s expectations,” Lauretta noted. Though one fastener issue remains, he said they now have “full confidence” on plans to back off the final fastener screw and proceed with opening the capsule soon.

Contents of Asteroid Time Capsule Revealed

With access made to the sample canister, researchers will begin the long-anticipated analysis of its extraterrestrial contents. Inside is material that has remained unchanged for over 4 billion years, containing clues about our solar system’s early history and the role asteroids may have played in bringing water to early Earth.

“I can’t tell you how excited the science team is to finally gain access to the sample that the spacecraft collected two years ago,” Lauretta said. “This is a treasure trove of information about the earliest stages of solar system evolution and the role that primitive asteroids like Bennu may have played in delivering prebiotic chemicals to early Earth.”

Over the next few weeks, images will be taken of the sample capsule’s interior to document its contents. Then a few rocks will be removed and prepared for initial analysis.

“It’s awe-inspiring to think about,” Lauretta remarked, “This sample that we fought so hard to collect and bring safely back to Earth, now is going to unveil the secrets of our cosmic origins.”

The team expects the analysis of these precious pieces of asteroid Bennu to revolutionize our knowledge for years to come. As the University of Arizona poetically stated, this marks the return of pieces from “an ancient time capsule, offering a peek into what our solar system was like billions of years ago.”

Next Steps: Analyzing an Asteroid Time Capsule

With the sample now accessible, scientists are ready to begin unlocking its secrets. Over the next few years, pieces of the sample will be sent to laboratories worldwide, where scientists will conduct various types of analysis.

“It is so exciting to see grains of rock and dust from Bennu,” said planetary scientist Lori Glaze. “The sample return will allow generations of planetary scientists to pore over pieces of this early solar system time capsule.”

While the first studies will focus on sample imaging and documentation, more in-depth analysis will reveal specifics on:

  • Chemical makeup
  • Mineral composition
  • Presence of organic compounds
  • Comparison with meteorite samples

Discoveries are expected to fill gaps in our understanding of asteroids, the early solar system, planet formation theories and more. There is also great anticipation around evaluating theories that asteroids seeded Earth with key ingredients for life.

“I can think of no better way to start off the science return than with crumbs from the very earliest stages of solar system formation,” said scientist Jason Dworkin.

Conclusion: Historic Sample to Transform Asteroid Science

NASA’s delivery of the first extensive batch of asteroid samples marks a major achievement decades in the making. The historic return of rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu after OSIRIS-REx’s multi-year mission enables groundbreaking research by scientists worldwide.

“After years of planning and hard work, we can say OSIRIS-REx accomplished far more than we hoped it would,” said Lori Glaze, head of NASA’s planetary science division.

Now that the sample is finally accessible inside the capsule, space agencies globally are ready to coordinate and share studies of its precious contents. Discoveries from these relics dating back over 4 billion years promise to revolutionize our theories on everything from asteroids and solar system formation to prebiotic chemistry and the origins of life itself.

“Our science and curation teams at NASA are incredibly excited to finally open the container housing sample from asteroid Bennu,” said NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen. “This sample will help us uncover the secrets of our solar system, advancing space exploration and science for the benefit of humanity.”

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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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