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NASA ultimately manages to free the trapped Bennu asteroid sampler

Sometimes it’s difficult for even the most bright minds at NASA to unlock a hermetically sealed container. After two bolts remained locked for over 3.5 months, engineers and scientists at Johnson Space Center eventually opened a container containing asteroid sample material.

The agency got about 2.5 ounces of rocks and dust from Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid that is 4.5 billion years old, on September 24, 2023. In a Utah desert, OSIRIS-REx fell off the regolith. This is the first expedition from the United States to sample an asteroid. To deposit the asteroid dust, the spacecraft made a 1.4 billion-mile journey from Earth to the asteroid Bennu and back. But according to a NASA announcement made in October, part of the material was stored in a capsule inside a robotic arm known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), which was out of reach.

To keep the samples from being contaminated, they need to be examined in a dedicated glovebox that has a nitrogen flow. NASA reported that the sampler was secured shut by 35 bolts, two of which were too hard to open using any of the pre-approved methods for accessing containers containing such valuable materials. 35 fasteners were holding the sampler shut and two of the fasteners were too difficult to open with any of the pre-approved ways to access containers of such precious samples. When the aluminum head was first removed, they were able to gather some black dust and debris from the TAGSAM head and, while the mylar flap of the TAGSAM head was held down, they could reach some of the material from inside the canister using tweezers or a scoop.

To pry apart the trapped screws, NASA needed to design new materials and specialized techniques that reduce the danger that the priceless space rock samples will be harmed or contaminated. Among the new tools are specially-made bits made of a certain surgical, non-magnetic stainless steel grade. In the perfect preservation gloveboxes of the container, this is the hardest metal that has been authorized for use. The crew was able to free the stuck fasteners with these methods.

The curator Nicole Lunning of the Johnson Space Center OSIRIS-REx said in a statement that “In addition to the design challenge of being limited to curation-approved materials to protect the scientific value of the asteroid sample, these new tools also needed to function within the tightly-confined space of the glovebox, limiting their height, weight, and potential arc movement,”  “The curation team showed impressive resilience and did incredible work to get these stubborn fasteners off the TAGSAM head so we can continue disassembly. We are overjoyed with the success.”

A couple more stages of disassembly will reveal the rest of the sample in its entirety. The sample can be photographed at extremely high quality while it is still within TAGSAM’s brain by image specialists. This sample will be taken out and weighed after imaging, and the scientists will calculate the mass of all the asteroid material that the mission was able to collect.

Bennu is a remnant of the early solar system, specifically the first 10 million years. Because of its age, scientists can see what this era looked like. The space rock has the shape of a spinning top and, at its widest point, measures about one-third of a mile across, which is somewhat wider than the height of the Empire State Building. It rotates between the sun’s surface the orbits of Earth and Mars.

Bennu included a lot of water on it in the form of hydrated clay minerals, according to a study done on the asteroid’s dust last autumn. The team argues that traces of water on asteroids support the prevailing explanation of how water came on Earth.

All of Earth’s oceans, lakes, rivers, and rain are probably the result of asteroids like Bennu, OSIRIS-REx principle investigator Dante Lauretta told PopSci in October. About 4 billion years ago, space rocks probably brought water to Earth. According to Lauretta, the water-bearing clay with a fibrous structure found on the asteroid Bennu was the primary substance that transported water to Earth.

Additionally, the Bennu sample has 4.7% carbon. The OSIRIS-REx sample analysis lead at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Daniel Glavin, claims that this sample has the highest carbon abundance ever recorded in an extraterrestrial sample by a team from the Carnegie Institution for Science. When the team opened it, Glavin told PopSci,  “There were scientists on the team going ‘Wow, oh my God!’ And when a scientist says that ‘Wow;’ that’s a big deal.”

The curation team plans to make available a catalog of the OSIRIS-REx samples to the world’s scientific community for examination in the spring. Now known as OSIRIS-APEX, OSIRIS-REx is presently en route to investigate Apophis, a possible asteroid. That encounter is set for sometime in 2029.

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