OSIRIS-REx successfully returned a sample of the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid Bennu to Earth on September 24, 2023 – a sample which scientists predict may offer evidence of how our Solar System formed, and how life on Earth began.
The initial aim of the sample-return mission was to collect 60g of rocks and dust, known as ‘regolith’, from Bennu, for current and future analysis.
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NASA has reported that the curation team processing the sample has removed and collected 70.3g of regolith from just the sampler hardware, already surpassing the initial goal.
The sample processed so far includes the excess rocks and dust found on the outside of the sampler head, as well as a portion of the bulk sample from inside the head, which was accessed through the head’s mylar flap and extracted using tweezers and a scoop.
However, the majority of the main bulk of the sample remains within the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head, which made contact with Bennu’s surface in October 2020, to obtain the regolith material.
In a statement, NASA said: “After multiple attempts at removal, the team discovered two of the 35 fasteners on the TAGSAM head could not be removed with the current tools approved for use in the OSIRIS-REx glovebox.
“The team has been working to develop and implement new approaches to extract the material inside the head, while continuing to keep the sample safe and pristine.”
The capsule has been secured in a specialised glovebox under a constant flow of nitrogen since its transportation to NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in September, to ensure the sample was not contaminated by Earth’s present chemistry. As a result, the methods available to NASA to access the sample are somewhat limited.
“The tools for any proposed solution to extract the remaining material from the head must be able to fit inside the glovebox and not compromise the scientific integrity of the collection, and any procedures must be consistent with the clean room’s standards,” NASA said.
The team are reported to be developing and practicing a new procedure to remove the remaining asteroid sample from the TAGSAM sampler head, while simultaneously processing the material that has already been extracted.
During this process, the TAGSAM head is said to have been removed from the active flow of nitrogen in the glovebox and stored it in its transfer container, sealed with an O-ring and surrounded by a sealed Teflon bag to make sure the sample is kept safe in a stable, nitrogen-rich, environment.