OSIRIS-REx probe sucked up more asteroid crumbs than hoped

121 grams is the largest such sample secured, but NASA won't blow it all at once

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft snagged 121.6 grams of material from asteroid Bennu – the largest quantity ever retrieved by such a mission.

NASA's goal was to collect at least 60 grams from Bennu. It had deemed that amount sufficient for the needs of its own scientists with some left over to share with others.

Mission control had an inkling that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft exceeded expectations when, in October 2020, it successfully grazed the surface of Bennu and captured so much material that it began leaking particles.

NASA scientists began working to access the sample after the probe dropped its capsule in the Utah desert in September 2023, seven years after its launch.

But opening the capsule device wasn't easy. To avoid contamination, it was stored in a sealed box and could only be manipulated by researchers wearing gloves. Scientists struggled to get in, and NASA fell behind its scheduled timeline.

Last month, the agency created a multi-part tool made of non-magnetic stainless steel that helped unlock the canister to access the sample. They poured the space stuff into containers and weighed it.

"51.3 grams (1.81 ounces) were collected from this pour. Combined with the previously measured 70.3 grams (2.48 ounces) and additional particles collected outside of the pour, the bulk Bennu sample mass totals 121.6 grams (4.29 ounces)," NASA confirmed on Thursday.

The agency has also published a gallery of images depicting the sample handling effort here.

70 percent of the material will be preserved for scientists to study. The rest will be shared with other space agencies, labs, and museums around the world.

Saving some of the sample is important as it gives researchers an opportunity to examine specimens with tools that might be created years from now, rather than subjecting it all to today's test kit.

This approach is not unusual. NASA also held back lunar samples from the Apollo 17 mission and scientists still investigate those specimens.

Initial observations show that Bennu contains carbon-based compounds and hydrated minerals – sources of organic materials and water. This finding supports the hypothesis that asteroids may have brought the building blocks of life to Earth, though that's not the only way life could have developed on our planet.

The OSIRIS-REx mission ended, but the spacecraft that delivered the asteroid sample was renamed OSIRIS-APEX and is now en route to Apophis – a near-Earth object that may be potentially hazardous. The probe will reach Apophis when it has a rare close encounter with Earth in 2029. ®

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