A month ago, NASA successfully delivered pristine samples from an asteroid to Earth in a remarkable feat of interstellar exploration.
These coveted extraterrestrial specimens were encapsulated within a secure canister to safeguard the asteroid fragments during their journey through space.
However, NASA’s dedicated team at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) is grappling with the formidable challenge of opening this cosmic treasure chest and accessing its space rocks.
The focal point of this cosmic puzzle is the TAGSAM head (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism), a round sampler head situated at the terminus of an articulated arm on the spacecraft.
This mechanism was responsible for securing the asteroid sample, where most of the precious cargo resides.
A specialized curation team is carrying out the intricate task of unsealing the TAGSAM head under a constant flow of nitrogen to prevent contamination.
These scientists have been laboring diligently for the past week, facing a unique set of obstacles.
According to NASA, “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.”
Their unwavering commitment to maintaining the sample’s integrity and safeguarding its pristine condition has fueled their quest to devise innovative approaches for its extraction.
An intriguing twist in this tale unfolded when the aluminum lid to the sample canister was initially removed, revealing traces of black dust and debris on the avionics deck.
On October 11, NASA granted the world its first glimpse of the samples retrieved from the exterior of the TAGSAM head, emphasizing that the full unsealing of the sample canister has yet to be accomplished.
This revelation was met with excitement and optimism, as it signifies the abundance of the sample even before the main body of the asteroid material is accessed. Francis McCubbin, curator at NASA’s JSC, jubilantly stated during a live event, “The only problem is a great problem, and that’s we’ve found a lot more samples than we’re anticipating before even getting into the TAGSAM.”
Nonetheless, the challenge persists. The curation team has extracted some of the material from inside the canister, aided by tweezers or a scoop, while carefully securing the TAGSAM head’s mylar flap.
Over the forthcoming weeks, they will engage in a collective brainstorming effort to engineer fresh methods for retrieving the remaining sample.
Any proposed tools or procedures must remain consistent with the clean room’s exacting standards to preserve the scientific integrity of the collection.
A silver lining emerges in this asteroid saga, as the samples recovered surpass the mission’s initial goal of collecting 60 grams of debris.
NASA’s Abundant Bounty: A 70.3-Gram Treasure Trove of Rocks and Dust
To date, NASA has amassed a remarkable 2.48 ounces (70.3 grams) of rocks and dust, presenting scientists with a treasure trove of material for analysis.
Preliminary investigations have revealed the presence of significant amounts of carbon and water molecules, further igniting hopes of discovering organic matter within the asteroid samples.
Such a finding would bolster the theory that the building blocks of life may traverse the cosmos on these ancient space rocks.
The OSIRIS-REx mission embarked on its voyage in September 2016, culminating in its arrival at asteroid Bennu in December 2018.
After nearly two years of meticulous observations, the spacecraft executed a historic touch-and-go maneuver, successfully securing a sample from Bennu’s surface in October 2020.
This mission reached a pivotal milestone on September 24, as it returned the asteroid samples to Earth, depositing them in the Utah desert.
While the mission may have encountered a temporary hiccup, the early findings from the asteroid sample have proven remarkably promising.
As the dedicated team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center works tirelessly to unlock the secrets contained within the TAGSAM head, the world eagerly anticipates the continued revelations and discoveries that lie in wait within these celestial remnants.