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March 2, 2024

NASA Unlocks Precious Asteroid Treasure After Months-Long Struggle

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Jan 15, 2024

After months of intense effort, NASA engineers have finally unlocked the sample container holding rubble from asteroid Bennu, allowing scientists to soon begin analyzing the precious extraterrestrial material for clues to life’s origins and Earth’s history.

Months-Long Battle With Stubborn Fasteners

The sample capsule returned to Earth in September 2023 with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft after a historic multi-year mission to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. However, excitement turned to anxiety when technicians discovered two stuck fasteners obstructing the container.

Despite trying numerous methods, NASA engineers struggled for months to open the capsule. The fasteners refused to budge, threatening to indefinitely delay scientific study of Bennu’s cosmic time capsule.

“We were quite worried for some time whether we would ever get inside,” said OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The team tried all kinds of ideas, procedures and tools to try and get those inserts to turn. So this has been a long haul.”

The stubborn fasteners became a growing headache as scientists eagerly awaited a chance to analyze the precious sample for organic molecules and hydrated minerals that could reveal clues to life’s origins and Earth’s early history.

“It was absolutely frustrating to not be able to get at the sample quickly,” said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “We have all been waiting for years to receive this material.”

Eureka Moment Opens the Hatch

The breakthrough came January 11 when engineers finally discovered a way to loosen the troublesome fasteners after testing numerous tools and techniques.

“The team had an ‘A-ha!’ moment,” Lauretta said. They realized that heating the fasteners would cause the housing material to expand enough to twist the inserts open.

“We put the head end of the TAGSAM into an oven to heat it up and then the inserts finally turned and we got them out…it was just incredible,” said OSIRIS-REx engineer Chad Elliott.

Lauretta said the team’s excitement was “just overflowing” at having finally conquered the stubborn fasteners.

“We were finally going to be able to get inside this capsule and get at the sample that we had worked so hard for the last decade to collect and get back to Earth,” Lauretta said.

“I can’t tell you how moving and motivating it was just to see those inserts coming out,” he added.

Asteroid Treasure Trove Now Accessible

With the troublesome fasteners finally removed on January 12, the way is now clear for scientists to extract and analyze the precious sample collected from Bennu in October 2020.

The capsule contains at least 2 ounces of rocky material grabbed directly from the surface of the 1,650-foot-wide asteroid. It represents the largest sample return from space since the Apollo moon rocks and the first collected from a carbon-rich asteroid.

OSIRIS-REx Bennu Sample
Mass > 2 oz (60 grams)
Composition Rocks, dust, organics
Origin Asteroid Bennu
Age Over 4 billion years

Scientists are hopeful the rubble pulled from Bennu will provide new insights into the solar system’s creation 4.5 billion years ago and how planets formed from primordial asteroids.

“I am so excited to finally get a chance to look at the sample we worked so hard to collect,” Dworkin said. “This material from Bennu could really help explain aspects of the origin of life and how water and organic compounds were first delivered to Earth.”

“These samples might contain clues to help us understand the early solar system and the origin of life itself,” added Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.

High Anticipation to Soon Study Cosmic Capsule

With the sample container finally unlocked, scientists are wasting no time preparing the cache for analysis at specially equipped labs in Houston. The first tiny grains could be extracted for study before the end of January.

“It’s difficult to contain the excitement,” said OSIRIS-REx curation manager Kevin Righter. His team was working 24/7 to ready the first sample analysis.

“The science team is absolutely thrilled to start getting data from this sample,” Righter added. “The material holds so much promise to reveal new insights into asteroid geology and processes in the early solar system.”

The cache will be removed from the capsule and divided for study at dozens of labs worldwide. Scientists will first measure organic compounds and water abundances before examining other mineral traits.

Detailed analysis is expected to unfold over 10 years or more, keeping scientists busy for decades investigating the unique asteroid treasure.

Planning Future Asteroid Mining Missions

In light of OSIRIS-REx’s sample return success, NASA is already planning additional asteroid missions to explore their value for space mining and protecting Earth.

The DART spacecraft will test deflecting a non-threatening asteroid in fall 2024, demonstrating technology to divert future dangerous space rocks on collision course with Earth.

The Janus mission – two small spacecraft instead of one large probe – has been proposed to visit two binary asteroid systems for launch in 2029. Focusing on multiple tiny worldlets could reveal new insights beyond OSIRIS-REx’s survey of a single object.

Most ambitiously, NASA is assessing ideas for a solar-powered robotic spacecraft that could extract water or methane fuel directly from suitable carbonaceous asteroids. Launchpads on asteroids could one day support deep space exploration and space mining.

“The amazing sample collection by OSIRIS-REx proves asteroids provide reachable resources that may aid human space missions,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “These small rocky time capsules could also unlock scientific knowledge about the emergence of life.”

After analyzing material from Bennu, scientists are optimistic that asteroids contain abundant compounds valuable for science and space industries. The troublesome fasteners that delayed unlocking OSIRIS-REx’s sample capsule may soon be long forgotten amidst the flurry of discoveries from its cosmic treasure.

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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.

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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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