On September 24th, NASA achieved a groundbreaking milestone as an orange-and-white capsule bearing the treasures of the universe touched down on Earth.
The capsule contained precious pieces of an asteroid named Bennu, offering a glimpse into the distant past of our cosmic neighborhood.
Bennu, believed to have been traversing space since the early days of our solar system, carries secrets about the universe that have eluded humanity for eons.
These samples could hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of the cosmos and revealing what our celestial neighborhood looked like long before humans inhabited the Earth.
The OSIRIS-REx mission, launched in 2016, propelled the capsule into space as it embarked on a 4-billion-mile journey to reach Bennu.
After getting to the asteroid’s surface, the spacecraft extended an arm to briefly touch down and retrieve a small portion of its material.
Scientists had set their sights on gathering at least 60 grams of Bennu’s material, but the mission exceeded all expectations.
According to a NASA blog post, the curation team processing the samples announced they had already removed and collected a remarkable 70.3 grams (2.48 ounces) of Bennu material from the capsule.
What makes this achievement even more special is that this material was taken from the outer surface and part of the inside of the sample collector’s head.
Additional material inside the sampler head will be extracted later, adding to the overall mass.
Although OSIRIS-REx is not the first mission to bring back asteroid samples, it has set a new record. The capsule delivered the largest-ever asteroid sample to our planet, surpassing all previous endeavors in this field.
NASA intends to share this cosmic wealth with the global scientific community.
The agency has pledged to allocate 25% of the Bennu samples to over 200 scientists at 25 different facilities, with 4% going to the Canadian Space Agency and 0.5% to JAXA, the Japanese space agency.
The remaining approximately 70% will be stored at Johnson Space Center, where it will be the subject of extensive research for years to come, reminiscent of how Apollo moon rock samples continue to yield discoveries decades after their return to Earth.
Unveiling Bennu’s Mysteries Amidst Unexpected Challenges
The mission’s unexpected challenges have only added to its intrigue.
Bennu’s malleable nature, revealed during the touch-and-go collection process, surprised scientists.
As the sample collection arm made contact with the asteroid, dust particles were released into space, nearly swallowing the spacecraft.
This unexpected behavior further complicates the precise estimation of the sample’s mass within the OSIRIS-REx capsule, a mystery that can only be unraveled when the container is finally opened.
Opening the capsule itself presents its own set of challenges. Some of the fasteners on the TAGSAM head (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) could not be removed with the current tools.
This necessitates developing and implementing new approaches to extract the material while preserving its integrity.
Stringent regulations bind the OSIRIS-REx scientists to ensure the sample’s preservation.
For instance, all curation work occurs within a special glove box with a constant nitrogen flow to prevent exposure to Earth’s atmosphere.
The team continues to work diligently to maintain the sample’s integrity while developing a strategy to access the remaining material.
As scientists work tirelessly to unlock the secrets hidden within the capsule, the OSIRIS-REx mission stands as a testament to humanity’s insatiable curiosity about the cosmos, pushing the boundaries of space exploration and advancing our understanding of the universe.
Source: Live Science