NASA scientists have finally opened the sample return capsule from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and revealed the first high-resolution images of pieces of asteroid Bennu. After overcoming technical difficulties, the team accessed the capsule on January 18th and photographed the pristine extraterrestrial samples inside.
Background on the OSIRIS-REx Mission
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected the samples from asteroid Bennu in October 2020 after launching in 2016 on a mission to study and return pieces of the carbon-rich near-Earth asteroid. Bennu orbits close to Earth’s orbit around the Sun and is considered a potentially hazardous object. Studying its composition can reveal clues about the formation of our solar system and the origins of elements like carbon and water.
The sample collection process did not go exactly as planned, with the spacecraft collecting significantly more material than anticipated in itsTouch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head. Upon return to Earth in September 2023, mission teams could not easily open the sample return capsule due to internal pressure from nitrogen gas leaks used to keep the sample in place.
Breaking the Seals to Access the Sample
On January 18th, engineers finally succeeded in opening the capsule by breaking internal seals and increasing the pressure inside the chamber holding the TAGSAM head. This allowed them to rotate and extract the head and place it in a protective case for transport to the astrophysics lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
“Opening the TAGSAM hardware was a big milestone, enabling us to see the sample inside, image it, and start to assess where we stand with planning curation and sample science,” said OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta.
|Quick Facts on OSIRIS-REx
|Launch: Sept. 8, 2016
|Asteroid Arrival: Dec. 3, 2018
|Sample Collection: Oct. 20, 2020
|Sample Mass: ~ 2 kg
|Earth Return: Sept. 24, 2023
First Glimpses of an Alien World
On January 21st, NASA revealed stunning high-resolution color images of some of the collected sample material. The photographs showcase a diversity of rocks, dust, and even a Carbonaceous Chondrite meteorite fragment embedded in the regolith. The images provide an unprecedented close-up view of materials from the ancient carbonaceous asteroid, formed over 4 billion years ago.
“These first solid samples ever collected from an ancient rocky asteroid have remained untouched for perhaps billions of years. They hold secrets about the formation of the Solar System yet to be discovered,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.
What’s Next for Studying the Precious Samples
Now that engineers have finally accessed the sample container, the pristine extraterrestrial material will be carefully catalogued, imaged in more detail, and prepared for detailed analysis by scientists around the world. Researchers will use a range of sophisticated instruments to study everything from chemistry and mineralogy to dating the samples and scanning for complex organic compounds.
Findings from these studies over the next decade will help unravel mysteries about our solar system’s early history, the role of asteroids in developing planets, and even the origins of water and life itself.
“The analysis of these samples will catalyze new questions and theories and inspire future space exploration. However, none of this amazing science would have been possible without the tireless efforts of the OSIRIS-REx Team,” said Lauretta. “From spacecraft operations to hands-on work with the sample, this has been an epic journey for this team, and it has been an absolute privilege to be on this ride with them.”
With the long-awaited sample finally accessed, scientists can begin work unlocking Bennu’s secrets and planning future missions to other asteroid targets. NASA is already planning the Janus mission to fly by binary asteroids, as well as discussing an OSIRIS-REx extended mission and even missions to return samples from Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos. One thing is certain – this breakthrough with Bennu has opened the door to an exciting new era of planetary science and discovery!
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