NASA has finally cracked open the asteroid sample trapped behind stuck clouds

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HOUSTON — Two stubborn fasteners have trapped invaluable material taken from an asteroid — but after a months-long process, they have finally been released, NASA announced Thursday.

The space agency has already harvested about 2.5 ounces of rock and dust from the OSIRIS-REx mission, which traveled nearly 4 billion miles before landing in the Utah desert, to collect the unprecedented sample from the near-Earth asteroid called Bennu.

But NASA revealed last October that some materials remained out of reach in a capsule hidden inside a tool called the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, a robotic arm with a storage container at one end to collect the sample from Bennu.

The sampling head is closed by 35 clips, according to NASA, but two of them have proven difficult to open.

Disassembling the mechanism is not an easy task. The space agency must use pre-approved materials and tools around the capsule to reduce the risk of damaging or contaminating samples.

“These new instruments also need to operate within the confined space of a glove box, which limits their length, weight and potential arc motion,” said Dr. Nicole Luning, OSIRIS-REx processing lead at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. a permit. “The remediation team showed amazing flexibility and did a great job removing these stubborn fasteners from the TAGSAM head so we could continue dismantling. We are very pleased with this success.”

To address this issue, NASA said two tools were made of surgical steel — “the hardest metal approved for use in original processing glove boxes.”

Before tackling stuck fasteners, a team from Johnson Space Center tested the tools in a “practice lab,” slowly increasing the applied torque to ensure the new tools could successfully remove solid fasteners.

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What the asteroid sample has revealed so far

As of Thursday afternoon, NASA said the material of the trapped sample had not yet been detected. There are still “a few additional steps for disassembly,” according to the space agency. After these steps are taken, the hidden cache can be photographed, extracted and weighed, NASA said.

Analysis of materials from Bennu, collected by NASA researchers last fall, revealed that samples taken from the asteroid contain abundant water in the form of hydrated clay minerals in addition to carbon.

Scientists believe that the presence of water on asteroids reinforces the current theory about how it reached Earth billions of years ago.

“The reason Earth is a habitable world, and that we have oceans and lakes and rivers and rain, is because these clay minerals landed on Earth 4 billion years to 4.5 billion years ago, making our world habitable.” REx lead investigator Dante Lauretta said in October. “So we see the way the water has been incorporated into the solid.” Loretta is a professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona.

Some of Bennu's previously harvested samples have been sealed in storage containers for future study over decades, according to NASA's Thursday press release.

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