OSIRIS-REx's stuck asteroid sample canister finally cracked open by NASA

Space eggheads invent tools just to get that precious dust

After struggling for months, NASA has finally cracked open the canister storing a dirt sample scooped off the surface of an asteroid.

Launched in September 2016, the spacecraft flew to its target, the asteroid Bennu, and spent a couple of years studying the cosmic rock. Scientists eventually found a perfect spot to sample Bennu's regolith, and directed OSIRIS-REx to extend its 3.4-meter-long robotic arm and eject a puff of air. It then captured material loosened from the surface and stashed that dirt in its Touch-and-Go-Sample-Acquisition-Mechanism (TAGSAM) head. This sample capsule was sent off to Earth, landing in the desert in Utah in September 2023.

Soon after, NASA tried to pry it open, but couldn't undo two out of 35 fasteners, preventing eggheads from opening the canister. Months later, they have finally managed to solve this dilemma – using multi-part tools made out of non-magnetic stainless steel – to finish the job of opening the canister. 

"Our engineers and scientists have worked tirelessly behind the scenes for months to not only process the more than 70 grams of material we were able to access previously, but also design, develop, and test new tools that allowed us to move past this hurdle," Eileen Stansbery, division chief for Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science at NASA, explained in a statement.

The canister had to be opened in a special sterile box to keep the asteroid sample pristine and prevent any contamination. Next, scientists will remove the round metal collar enclosing the material and transfer it into trays, which will be photographed, weighed, packaged, presumably studied, and stored. NASA has collected more regolith than the 60 grams it aimed for, and will store some of the samples in perfect condition for analysis by future boffins with kit more advanced than that of today. 


Precious cargo – The inside of the sample canister with the top finally removed. Click to enlarge. Source: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold.

The asteroid sample includes not just dust but also rocks up to about one centimeter in size. Initial analysis showed Bennu contains water and carbon, and it's believed space rocks like this asteroid may have delivered at least some of these sorts of chemical compounds, useful for kick-starting life as we know it, to Earth by smashing into our planet billions of years ago.

Although the OSIRIS-REx mission is over, the spacecraft is still going strong and is flying toward its next target asteroid: 99942 Apophis. The space rock made headlines when astronomers predicted there was a chance it could hit Earth in 2029. The date for a potential collision was later revised to 2068, and then pushed back beyond the next 100 years. ®

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