Dante Lauretta has waited nearly 20 years to get his hands on authentic samples from an asteroid, which he says are key to solving mysteries about the origin of life on Earth. On Tuesday, he got his first look at dust grains returned by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.
Because they want to be sure, members of the OSIRIS-REx science team will sweep some dust from the asteroid’s sample can and send it to the laboratory for analysis. But there’s no doubt that the dust grains that appeared right after scientists opened the can’s lid are from the asteroid Bennu, where the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft picked up rocks during its descent in 2020.
The spacecraft completed its round trip to asteroid Bennu with a landing near the target point of the sample return capsule Sunday morning in Utah. The OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer) mothership launched the capsule to plunge into the atmosphere while firing its thrusters to maneuver on a trajectory to return to the solar system for an extended mission to visit another asteroid.
Ground teams quickly recovered the capsule and shipped it from Utah to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday aboard a US Air Force cargo plane. It then traveled to a specially built ultra-clean processing facility at the space center, which is also home to a collection of moon rocks brought back on NASA’s Apollo missions more than 50 years ago.
The sample tray was then placed inside the glove box to allow scientists to work with the devices through the glove ports. Then came the moment on Tuesday when scientists opened the lid.
“We opened the box today, and we saw that there was some black, dust-like material visible,” Loretta said Tuesday. “We hope it’s from Bennu. We expect to collect some of it tomorrow morning, and it will go straight to the labs.”
“T“This is the first glimpse of what we might have. There’s a good indication that we might have a sample,” Loretta said.
Tip of the iceberg
When the spacecraft left the about 1,600 feet (500 meters) wide asteroid Bennu in 2020, engineers estimated that the probe had collected about 250 grams, or 8.8 ounces, of samples from Bennu’s porous surface. The spacecraft sampled the asteroid by extending a robotic arm in front of it, then rocketed away from the surface, only coming into contact with Bennu for a few seconds. When the spacecraft touched down on the asteroid, it released a burst of gas to direct the loose rocks into an air filter-shaped collection chamber at the end of the robot arm. This device is called a touch-and-go sample acquisition mechanism, or TAGSAM.
Scientists discovered that the door to the collection chamber was open with larger rocky material, with some rock fragments leaking into space, so they decided to quickly store the sampling device inside the return capsule to avoid losing more material. This has led some scientists on the OSIRIS-REx team to wonder whether the spacecraft might return to Earth with more than 250 grams, which is four times the minimum required for mission success.
Researchers likely won’t know for sure how much material OSIRIS-REx brought home until next month. This will require the laboratory team in Houston to remove the TAGSAM sampling mechanism from its restraints inside the case, which had protected it on the journey back to Earth like a nesting doll. Then they will open the device and hope to find larger pieces of rock. All this should happen in the next two weeks.
But the first glimpse inside the sample box looks promising.
“By Friday, we should have a good sense of what the rapid analysis tells us (about the dust),” Loretta said. “First of all, do we actually have asteroid dust? That’s the first thing. Is it the type of material that we expected, based on the remote sensing we did at the asteroid? And how does that feed into our sample? The analysis plan that we’ve been writing over the last couple of years is pretty great.” Of detail?
“This is just the dust that we can see clearly now. The real treasure is inside TAGSAM, which we won’t have access to until probably late next week, and this will be a very deliberative process to figure out what the nature of that collection is, and how we can distribute it fairly to our international partners,” he said. And on the OSIRIS-REx scientific team, as well as maintaining long-term integrity for future researchers.
NASA will set aside about 70% of the asteroid sample for analysis decades into the future by scientists equipped with new laboratory techniques and techniques. NASA has scheduled a press conference on October 11 to reveal more details about the nature of the sample from Bennu.
“I feel so happy here because this is the moment we’ve been dreaming of,” Loretta said. “We can see the thing that touched Bennu is now in our laboratories. Of course, we can’t wait to get inside. We still have a lot of work to do. We still have to get inside this TAGSAM. This is where the real treasure is but we “We know how to do it and the team is ready and raring to go.”
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