Ever try opening a stubborn jar, but you don’t have a rubber grip handy? NASA scientists have a similar, but far more pressing issue on their hands. The space agency’s OSIRIS-REx mission successfully collected rocks and dust, called regolith, from the surface of asteroid Bennu in 2020. The spacecraft returned to Earth with its precious cargo in September 2023, but scientists are now facing a challenge in opening the sample capsule.
The capsule is equipped with a Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head, which contains the collected regolith. The TAGSAM head is secured with 35 fasteners, but two of these fasteners have proven to be difficult to remove.
This hurdle has led to a pause in accessing the invaluable asteroid samples.
The setback unfolded at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where perplexed scientists are strategizing solutions to retrieve the trapped asteroid pieces. “The team has been working to develop and implement new approaches to extract the material inside the head,” NASA explains, “while continuing to keep the sample safe and pristine.”
The Bennu samples are cause for excitement because even amid these challenges, the curation team has already extracted 2.48 ounces (70.3 grams) of extraterrestrial rocks and dust from the sampler hardware. This quantity surpasses NASA’s initial goal of securing at least 60 grams of material from Bennu. It signifies a monumental success as it stands, but there’s more to come.
“And the good news is, there’s still more of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security–Regolith Explorer) sample to collect,” the team writes.
The materials obtained thus far include particles from the exterior of the sampler head and some bulk samples from inside, retrieved through an opening covered by a mylar flap. Despite the current impasse, additional contents remain inside the sampler head, awaiting extraction once the complication with the fasteners is resolved, promising to further enrich our collection of space samples.
In navigating these unexpected challenges, the team adopted an innovative approach. They managed to secure some samples by retracting the mylar flap and carefully removing accessible material with tweezers or a scoop, tailored to the size of the particles. This meticulous process, along with the initial collection phase, has yielded a mass exceeding the mission’s requirement of 60 grams.
Going forward, the focus for the coming weeks involves crafting and refining a new technique to safely extract the remaining asteroid fragments. Concurrently, the team will process the samples retrieved this week. The OSIRIS-REx science personnel are also poised to characterize the retrieved materials and delve into comprehensive analysis of the bulk sample acquired thus far.
To maintain the purity of the samples for advanced scientific study, all handling and processing occur in a specialized glovebox, an enclosed chamber with a controlled atmosphere. This precaution involves a consistent nitrogen flow to prevent Earth’s atmosphere from contaminating the samples. Consequently, any tools integrated into the extraction solution must be compatible with the glovebox’s confines and uphold the scientific sanctity of the specimens. All procedures will adhere strictly to the clean room’s standards to avoid compromising the samples’ integrity.
In preparation for the next phase, the TAGSAM head, still housing some of the asteroid material, has been removed from the nitrogen stream within the glovebox. It is now securely stored in a transfer container, sealed with an O-ring and enclosed in a Teflon bag, ensuring a stable, nitrogen-rich environment to preserve the sample’s integrity.
This meticulous approach underscores the mission’s dedication to maintaining the pristine nature of the samples, initially gathered from Bennu’s surface in 2020. These samples, consisting of rocks and dust known as regolith, hold untold scientific secrets, potentially offering unprecedented insights into the cosmos’ distant past.
South West News Service writer Dean Murray contributed to this report.