NASA engineers have finally opened the sample container holding pieces of asteroid Bennu, revealing stunning images of the extraterrestrial material collected from over 200 million miles away.
Years-Long Mission Faced Critical Setback Last Fall
The capsule’s arrival in September 2023 capped a $1 billion, multi-year mission to bring back the largest sample collected from space since the Apollo moon rocks. However, excitement turned to tension when technicians discovered two screws stuck on the container lid after landing, blocking access to the precious cargo inside.
Special tools and procedures took months to develop before engineers could safely remove the stubborn fasteners this week. Now with the lid opened, researchers have full access to study the cosmic materials that could hold clues to life’s origins.
“We are seeing images now we never thought possible,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “It’s emotional for the team after all the hard work getting these samples back to Earth.”
Dart-Like Spacecraft Made Daring Maneuvers at Asteroid
The Origin, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) craft travelled over 1 billion miles to reach near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018. After surveying the carbon-rich body for 2 years, controllers executed a high-stakes touchdown in 2020 to vacuum up rubble from the surface.
“We rehearsed the sample collection activities with the spacecraft over and over before even attempting contact with Bennu,” said Mike Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It all had to go perfectly.”
In a risky maneuver likened to stuffing a dart into a moving golf ball, the spacecraft’s 11-foot robotic arm touched down for just 5 to 10 seconds in a site called Nightingale. Upon first contact, nitrogen gas stirred up and captured pieces of rocks and dust, potentially dating back to the birth of our solar system.
Capsule’s Precious Cargo Survives Blazing Re-entry
OSIRIS-REx fired its engines last year to slingshot out of Bennu’s orbit, beginning the long return trip to Earth with over 2 pounds of cargo in tow – far more than the minimum mission requirement. Controllers targeted a landing zone in the Utah desert, where recovery teams located the 5-foot wide capsule days later.
“As the backshell opened, you could see streaks where some of the sample left the capsule as it landed and hit the inside of the backshell,” said OSIRIS-REx program scientist Jason Dworkin.
Despite some leakage during its blazing hot re-entry, NASA confirmed a substantial portion of Bennu survived the journey. The agency transported the capsule to Johnson Space Center for preliminary inspection, that’s when technicians spotted the unyielding screws.
“Those two fasteners were not easy, I will tell you that,” said Carlton Allen, curation manager at Johnson. “But once the lid popped free, well, it was just wow.”
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Contents Exceed Expectations
With the container finally opened, scientists are marveling at their first peek inside. OSIRIS-REx cameras reveal a thick layer of dark porous rocks nestled in sandy gray material, flushed with color. Researchers also spotted several bright white patches yet to be analyzed.
“It’s more stunning than I could have imagined,” said Victoria Hamilton, an OSIRIS-REx curation scientist at the University of Arizona. “It reminds me of a Galactic Ghoul’s smile looking back at us.”
The trove contains primordial carbon-rich matter similar to particles that seeded life on Earth and possibly elsewhere. By studying Bennu’s chemistry and mineral make-up, scientists hope to retrace how the materials formed during the infancy of our solar system.
“Bennu could hold clues to one of the fundamental scientific questions: where we came from,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.
Material Distribution Surprises Scientists
While OSIRIS-REx obtained over a kilogram of sample, mission planners only expected a few grams of material to make it into the return capsule. The surprising amount suggests small rocky particles may have gotten wedged around screw heads and hinges, blocking access until removed.
“The abundance of sample inside is breathtaking,” said Lauretta. “It reminds us why we took on this ambitious mission on behalf of the world.”
Researchers at Johnson Space Center will catalog and prepare the precious cargo for distribution to research labs across the globe. Japan and Canada will receive a portion of the haul in exchange for providing mission resources.
“This is no doubt a momentous occasion celebrating the incredible work and perseverance of this team,” said Bhavya Lal, NASA associate administrator for technology, policy, and strategy. “OSIRIS-REx shows what NASA does best – lead a team through difficulties into remarkable discoveries that have the potential to change paradigms.”
Meticulous Steps Needed Before Research Can Begin
While elated with their first analysis, OSIRIS-REx team members say it’s too early to draw major conclusions about asteroid origins and chemistry. Over the coming months, scientists will systematically photograph, weigh, and analyze particles down to fractions of a millimeter across.
Researchers at the University of Arizona will receive the first sample aliquot this spring. Other early activities include contamination monitoring, regolith particle sorting, and cataloging material locations within collected masses.
“While we are able to capture images of some material already extracted, it will be several months before we can do a full inventory and determine if sample was evenly distributed,” said Allen.
Agency officials expect to allot returned specimens for initial assessment by summer 2024. After preliminary examinations, experts will conduct more detailed investigations likely lasting years, revealing insights over time.
“I fully anticipate discoveries leading to more questions,” said Glaze. “This sample will unveil secrets about the formation of our solar system for generations to come.”
Bennu May Hold Keys to Protecting Earth from Impact
In addition to unraveling the origins of life’s building blocks, scientists will evaluate whether Bennu remains a threat to Earth late this century, as modeling suggests.
The information already collected by OSIRIS-REx has enabled more precise predictions of Bennu’s future trajectory, including a 1-in-1,750 chance of impacting Earth on September 24, 2182.
While still a low probability event, experts say asteroid impacts can devastate entire regions, making risk analysis valuable to governments and space programs worldwide. By studying Bennu’s chemical make-up and orbital mechanics, researchers hope to better calculate future impact dangers from near-Earth objects.
“By collecting this sample from Bennu, we are enabling our team and other researchers around the world to uncover valuable data that could one day help us protect our planet from asteroids,” said Dante.
Even as analysis gets underway, nostalgia already settles in as some reflect on Bennu’s profound impact on OSIRIS-REx team members involved from concept to reality.
“I will always have fond memories of experiencing this mission alongside my colleagues and friends,” said Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator, “Bennu has challenged us, captivated us, and brought us together.”
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