NASA scientists successfully brought an asteroid sample back to Earth in September, making them the first U.S. space agency to do so.
All they have to do now is figure out how to open the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM to retrieve the rest of the sample, according to NASA.
OSIRIS-REx logged about seven years traveling, scanning, collecting samples from Asteroid Bennu before returning to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023.
“Scientists hope the Bennu sample OSIRIS-REx dropped into the Utah desert will offer clues to whether asteroids colliding with Earth billions of years ago brought water and other key ingredients for life here,” NASA wrote on their website.
Though scientists are still working on getting to the rest of the sample sealed in the TAGSAM head, they have been able to collect 2.48 ounces, or 70.3 grams of rock and dust from the sampler hardware.
The preliminary collection has already surpassed NASA’s goal of bringing at least 60 grams to Earth.
Here’s what we know.
How do NASA scientists plan to retrieve the rest of the sample?
Most of the sample scientists have collected so far was located on the outside of inside the OSIRIS-REx sample collector’s head, accessed through the head’s mylar flap. The rest lies inside the TAGSAM.
A team of scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston attempted to remove the TAGSAM head on multiple occasions, but found that two of the 35 fasteners could not be removed with the current tools the team had permission to use.
“The TAGSAM Head has more than 35 fasteners, but there were only 35 we ever planned to remove. The two that are stuck were among the last fasteners to be removed. All the other fasteners were removed successfully. We do not know why those last two are stuck, but we are actively working on potential solutions while also continuing to make progress on our sample processing procedures for the 70.3 grams of material that have already been extracted from the TAGSAM,” according to Francis McCubbin an Astromaterials Curator at the Johnson Space Center.
Some of the material was collected successfully when the team held down the head’s mylar flap by removing the sample inside with tweezers or a scoop, depending on the size of the material extracted.
Scientists will take the next couple of weeks to remove what’s left of the sample from the TAGSAM head with a new technique, process the material collected, and begin an analysis of the bulk sample, NASA reported Oct. 20.
The TAGSAM head has been removed from the active flow of nitrogen in the glovebox and stored in its transfer container sealed with an O-ring and surrounded by a sealed Teflon bag to make sure the sample is kept safe as the team brainstorms solutions to access the rest of the sample.
Since all of the work on the sample including the TAGSAM head has been performed in a specialized glovebox under a flow of nitrogen to keep it from being exposed to Earth’s atmosphere, the tools for any proposed solution must be able to fit inside the glovebox and not compromise the scientific integrity of the collection, according to NASA.
What has NASA discovered so far?
Preliminary studies of the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid sample shows that the building blocks of life on Earth may be found in the rock, which contains high-carbon content and water, according to NASA.
“Almost everything we do at NASA seeks to answer questions about who we are and where we come from. NASA missions like OSIRIS-REx will improve our understanding of asteroids that could threaten Earth while giving us a glimpse into what lies beyond. The sample has made it back to Earth, but there is still so much science to come – science like we’ve never seen before,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson previously stated.
The nature of the carbon compounds found may provide insights into how the solar system was formed, how the precursor materials to life may have been seeded on Earth, and what precautions need to be taken to avoid asteroid collisions.
More: Researchers find signs of rivers on Mars, a potential indicator of ancient life
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