NASA is encountering difficulties in the process of opening its container holding asteroid samples


A month or so ago, pure samples from an asteroid fell to Earth safely contained in a vacuum-sealed capsule. The main body of the asteroid was intended to be shielded during its space travel by the capsule. However, opening the container and getting to the space pebbles is currently proving to be difficult for NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC). The TAGSAM head, a circular sampler head at the end of the spacecraft’s articulated arm, has proved difficult to open for the last week for the curation team overseeing the OSIRIS-REx mission.

The sample from the asteroid was taken with this head. The team is treating the asteroid sample carefully within a modified glovebox to ensure that it stays clean under a nitrogen flow because the majority of it is housed within the TAGSAM head (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism). NASA stated in a recent blog post that “the team found that two of the 35 fasteners on the TAGSAM head could not be removed with the current tools permitted for use in the OSIRIS-REx glovebox after several efforts at removal. The group has been working hard to develop and apply fresh techniques for removing material from the brain while preserving the integrity and safety of the sample.” The mission team found black dust and debris on the avionics deck of the sample canister when they first removed the aluminum lid. The sample canister itself has not yet been opened, despite NASA revealing on October 11 the first image of samples taken from the exterior of the TAGSAM head.Francis McCubbin, curator at NASA’s JSC, said during a live presentation, “The only problem is a significant one: we’ve found a lot more sample than we anticipated, even before accessing the TAGSAM.”

But there’s another less positive thing to deal with. Using tweezers or a scoop, the curation team has so far been able to extract some material from inside the canister while keeping the mylar flap of the TAGSAM head secure. Above the next few weeks, the team will be exploring new methods to extract the remaining sample. NASA clarified on its website, “The tools for any proposed solution to extract the remaining material from the head must fit inside the glovebox without compromising the scientific integrity of the collection, and any procedures must adhere to the clean room’s standards.” Significantly, the quantity of asteroid samples recovered so far exceeds the mission’s goal of gathering 60 grams of asteroid debris. Thus far, 2.48 ounces (70.3 grams) of rock and dust have been acquired by NASA. The mission’s scientists have already started examining these samples and have found a large number of carbon and water molecules. Researchers had anticipated seeing proof of organic stuff incorporated into the asteroid sample, as this would validate the hypothesis that the fundamental building blocks of life can traverse the universe aboard these ancient space rocks.

Launched in September 2016, the OSIRIS-REx mission arrived at the asteroid Bennu in December 2018. In October 2020, the spacecraft made a successful landing on Bennu following nearly two years of monitoring, and it took a sample from the planet’s surface. On September 24, the asteroid samples were later brought back to Earth in the Utah desert. The mission just experienced a brief setback, but the preliminary results from the asteroid sample are encouraging. It is anticipated that in the near future, the remaining space rock fragments will be removed from the canister.

Photo: NASA

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