Late last year, a spacecraft containing samples from a 4.6 billion-year-old asteroid landed safely in the desert after… A journey of 1.2 billion miles. There was just one small problem: NASA couldn't open the box containing its precious rocks.
After months of repair, scientists at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston were able to loosen two stuck fasteners that kept pieces of asteroid Bennu out of researchers' hands.
“It's open! It's open!” NASA's Planetary Science Division to publish Friday on X, along with a photo of a lot of dust and small rocks inside the box.
Scientists were forced to change course in trying to open the case in mid-October after it became clear that none of the items in NASA's approved toolbox could open the last two of the 35 fasteners that seal the case.
To prevent contamination of the sample with ground air, it was stored in a clean room at the Houston facility where hazardous materials custodians meticulously dismantled the can. The team designed new tools specifically to open the final latches.
The agency will now finish extracting the approximately 9-ounce sample, which will be weighed and chemically analyzed. Much of the payload from OSIRIS-REx (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security Explorer-Regolith) will then be frozen and carefully preserved so that future generations of scientists can study it using advanced techniques.
“We are very pleased with this success,” said Nicole Lunning, NASA's chief sample curator for OSIRIS-REx. In the current situation.
It took more than seven years and nearly a billion dollars to recover a sample of Bennu, a space rock that formed during the early days of the solar system. Asteroid samples found on Earth have essentially been cooked by their scorching journey through the atmosphere, limiting what scientists can learn from them.
With OSIRIS-REx, “the goal is to bring back an ancient piece of the early solar system that was pristine,” says the NASA astrobiologist. Jason Durkin He told the Times in September. “You can use the remnants of the solar system's formation to piece together what happened in that formation.”
The spacecraft that collected the sample in 2020 and launched it toward Earth in September is now heading to its next mission. The craft, its name now Osiris-Apophis Exploreror OSIRIS-APEX, is on its way to a peanut-shaped asteroid named after… Apophis.
For a short (but worrying) time, astronomers thought that Apophis might be on its way to catastrophically smashing Earth. Now that this worrying possibility has been ruled out, scientists are looking forward to 2029, when the asteroid will pass closer to Earth than any object of this size ever has.
“It's something that almost never happens, and yet we can witness it in our lifetime,” said the JPL navigation engineer Davide Farnocchia He said last year. “We usually send spacecraft to visit and learn about asteroids. In this case, it's nature flying by.”
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