Last September, a capsule containing rock and dust collected from an asteroid returned to Earth. Four months later, NASA has finally opened the canister holding the main portion of that sample.
The NASA team had already discovered “bonus” material from the asteroid, which was unexpectedly included within the return capsule, outside of the main canister. Some of these pieces had already gone on display and been examined at research institutions. But the head of the canister, called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), remained sealed shut—two of the 35 fasteners keeping it closed wouldn’t budge, and it took until January 10 for the team to remove them.
“The curation team showed impressive resilience and did incredible work to get these stubborn fasteners off the TAGSAM head so we can continue disassembly,” Nicole Lunning, curator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for OSIRIS-REx, the mission that retrieved the asteroid, says in a statement. “We are overjoyed with the success.”
It’s open! It’s open! And ready for its closeup. After successfully removing two final fasteners on Jan. 10, members of the @astromaterials team photographed the #OSIRISREx asteroid sample with a special technique to achieve super high-res images. https://t.co/bBrfFT3FoR pic.twitter.com/NTGMVFZCP3— NASA Solar System (@NASASolarSystem) January 19, 2024
Now, the team will transfer the rest of the asteroid dust into pie-wedge sample trays, per NASA. The pieces will be distributed to scientists around the world for analysis. Researchers hope the material can provide insight into whether asteroids first introduced water, as well as other ingredients needed to support life, to Earth.
The materials are from Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid that circles the sun from slightly beyond Earth’s orbit. The space rock can provide researchers with a glimpse back to the early days of the universe, since scientists think it has had the same composition for more than 4.5 billion years.
With the OSIRIS-REx mission, “the objective is to bring back an ancient piece of the early solar system that is pristine,” Jason Dworkin, a NASA astrobiologist, told the Los Angeles Times’ Corinne Purtill last fall. “You can use these leftovers of the formation of the solar system to construct what happened in that formation.”
On September 8, 2016, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launched to study Bennu. It arrived near the asteroid in December 2018 and spent the next year mapping out where it could safely collect a sample from Bennu’s hazardous, rocky surface. The spacecraft briefly made contact with the asteroid on October 20, 2020, tapping the surface to collect some rocks and dust, before starting its return journey to Earth.
OSIRIS-REx dropped the capsule with the asteroid sample from the sky on September 24, 2023, and it landed in the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. NASA transported the sample to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists would study it.
There, TAGSAM has been stored within a specialized glovebox, which is treated with a constant flow of nitrogen to prevent the sample from getting exposed to Earth’s atmosphere.
While attempting to open the canister, the researchers determined that two of the fasteners couldn’t be removed with tools approved for use in the glovebox, NASA said in an October blog post. The team then had to design new tools that could fit into the box, remove the fasteners and not “compromise the scientific integrity of the collection,” NASA wrote.
“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,” Lunning says in the statement.
Ultimately, the researchers built two tools that include new bits made from surgical, non-magnetic stainless steel. The team has finished disassembling the canister head.
Now, the total mass of the sample can be determined, before it is packaged and stored. From the bonus material alone, NASA had already collected 2.48 ounces of asteroid rocks and dust, which eclipsed the agency’s goal of collecting at least 2.12 ounces. Initial studies determined the asteroid sample contains carbon and water, essential building blocks of life.
Later this year, NASA will release a catalog of the Bennu samples, which researchers can peruse before submitting requests for samples to study or exhibit.