After months of anticipation, NASA has finally opened the sample return capsule from the OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission, revealing stunning images of asteroid Bennu and kicking off scientific study of these precious extraterrestrial samples.
Months-Long Effort to Access Asteroid Riches
The capsule returned to Earth on September 24, 2022, landing in the Utah desert after a years-long journey to asteroid Bennu and back. However, excitement turned to frustration as engineers struggled for months to open the capsule due to two stuck screws on the sampler head (1).
Special custom tools had to be designed and machined to finally clear the obstacles barring access to the largest sample return from an asteroid in history (2). On January 11, 2024, the OSIRIS-REx team announced the breakthrough removal of the final two fasteners, unveiling the precious asteroid material for scientific study (3).
“The abundance of material we collected from Bennu made these extraordinary preservation efforts absolutely necessary,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson (4). “Now that we have the capsule successfully opened, we get to see the fruit of our labor firsthand, and it looks amazing!”
A First Glimpse at Asteroid Building Blocks
With the capsule finally opened, NASA released stunning photographic images showing piles of dark, cosmic rubble – our first high-definition glimpse at material from early in the formation of the solar system over 4 billion years ago (5).
“Everything went flawlessly over the last year to get us to this point: From a perfect touchdown by the sample return capsule, to extraVEHicular robotic removal and transport of the sample to curation, and now sample processing and observation,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington (6). “However, nature threw us for a loop with the challenges of unsealing the sample chamber.”
|NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
|Overhead shot inside the OSIRIS-REx sample capsule showing asteroid rubble
|NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
|Closer view of a 3.4-ounce sample of fine-grained, black, asteroid regolith and rocks
The images show the equivalent of a large soda can’s worth of primordial rubble. The material will now undergo careful examination by scientists seeking clues to the origins of planets and life.
Clues to Life’s Origins and Earth’s History
This sample offers scientists an unprecedented opportunity to study the building blocks from early in the solar system’s history that may have seeded life on Earth (7). Bennu is a time capsule from that early era over 4 billion years ago when the planets were coalescing (8). Asteroids like Bennu contain molecules and volatiles that might have powered early biology and biochemistry on the young Earth (9).
The material will be analyzed for organic compounds at NASA’s curation facility at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. A portion of the sample will then be carefully examined by scientists at the University of Arizona and the University of Winnipeg, searching for pre-biotic chemistry or even evidence of microbial life (10).
Understanding Bennu’s chemistry and mineralogy will also refine theoretical models and ground-truth telescopic observations to better predict the broader chemical environments and water delivery capacity of asteroids (11). This will improve our comprehension of asteroids’ wide-ranging influences, including their potential to collide with Earth.
What’s Next: New Discoveries and Future Expeditions
While the breakthrough sample access hurdle has passed, much work lies ahead. The material will be carefully catalogued, with amounts precisely weighed and photographic documentation collected. The sample will be split up among research teams, who will conduct various types of assays and experiments (12). Findings will be published over the next few years, unraveling secrets of solar system origins and the asteroid’s history.
OSIRIS-REx engineers were praising the perfect performances of both the spacecraft and Earth-bound recovery operations. Besides the stuck fasteners, the multi-year mission went exceptionally smoothly and promises to massively advance asteroid science (13).
The insights from Bennu may aid future expeditions to asteroids by informing target selection, spacecraft design, sampling mechanisms, and navigation strategies (14). OSIRIS-REx also collected detailed data during its two year survey of Bennu, tracking its orbital trajectory to high precision (15). This will significantly improve predictions of whether Bennu poses an impact threat to Earth next century.
While OSIRIS-REx heads back for another look at asteroid Bennu in 2026, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has bold plans to bring back material from asteroid Ryugu in 2028 (16). Additionally, NASA recently announced the Janus mission will visit two binary asteroid systems, using rapid robotic maneuvers to gather multi-asteroid samples (17). The insights from primitive objects like Bennu and Ryugu are revolutionizing our comprehension both of hazards from space and the chances of life taking root beyond Earth.
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