NASA has found “dark powder and sand-sized particles” in their OSIRIS-REx sample collected from asteroid Bennu.
NASA launched their OSIRIS-REx mission in September 2016, sending a Sample Retrieval Capsule (SRC) to retrieve “astromaterials” from the 1,650-foot-wide asteroid Bennu.
Using a Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), the OSIRIS-Rex arrived at Bennu in December 2018, and collected the 4.5-billion-year-old sample through its robotic arm in October 2020.
The capsule landed in the desert of northern Utah on Sunday (24 September) and was then transported to NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston the next day. Scientists first lifted the capsule’s outer lid at JSC on Tuesday (26 September).
NASA's Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) scientists posted on X: “Scientists gasped as the lid was lifted from the #OSIRISREx asteroid sample return canister, showing dark powder and sand-sized particles on the inside of the lid and base”. This finding has excited scientists, referring to the canister as a “scientific treasure box”.
Studying the asteroid’s contents will reveal insights into the solar system's formation and early evolution, and the role of carbon-rich asteroids, such as Bennu, in seeding Earth with the building blocks of life.
One of the OSIRIS-REx sample analysis team members, Lindsay Keller, said: “We have all the microanalytical techniques that we can throw at this to really, really tear it apart, almost down to the atomic scale [...] You’ve got really top-notch people and instruments and facilities that are going to be hitting these samples”.
The three steps in handling the OSIRIS-REx sample of asteroid Bennu follow a slow and methodical process. This is because of the sizeable product overflowing the capsule and to ensure the outside hardware does not touch the sample inside.
The instruments being used include a scanning electron microscope (SEM), infrared measurements, and x-ray diffraction (XRD), to better understand the sample. The SEM offers a chemical and morphological analysis, the infrared will highlight if there are hydrated minerals and organic-rich particles in the sample, and the XRD will provide us with an inventory of the minerals.
Step one was to remove the aluminium lid protecting the head of the Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM). The lid was removed inside a glovebox designed to enable working with the large piece of hardware.
Step two will separate the TAGSAM from the capsule, which will be preserved for a few hours in a nitrogen-sealed container. This will allow the curation team to put the TAGSAM into another container.
Step three is a broadcasted event on 11 October. The capsule will be dissembled, revealing the sample of asteroid Bennu. This much anticipated live event will take place at 11AM EDT (08:00AM PDT), streamed on NASA Live and the agency’s website.
Edited by: Anwen Venn
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