NASA succeeded in collecting samples from an asteroid beyond expectations
NASA has reached an important stage in its mission to explore space. The agency successfully collected 70 grams of material from asteroid Bennu, exceeding its goal of 60 grams. Despite the challenges encountered during the extraction, it is expected that additional material will be collected as the team works to ensure the purity of the sample.
NASA's Bennu asteroid sample care team removed and collected 2.48 ounces (70.3 grams) of rock and dust from the sampler, exceeding the agency's goal of bringing at least 60 grams to Earth. The good news is that there are still more OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Secure Regolith Explorer) models to be collected.
The sample processed so far includes rocks and dust located outside the sample head, as well as a portion of the sample inside the head, accessible through the head's Mylar cap. The remaining material inside the sampler head, called a touch-and-go sampling mechanism, or TAGSAM, will be removed later, increasing the total mass.
Challenges in sample extraction
Over the past week, the team at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston changed its approach to opening TAGSAM's head, which contained most of the rocks and dust collected by the spacecraft in 2020. After several attempts to remove it, the team discovered that two of the 35 fasteners located on the head of the TAGSAM cannot be removed with current tools approved for use in the OSIRIS-REx glove. The team worked to develop and implement new methods to extract the material inside the head, while continuing to keep the sample safe and sound.
As a first step, the team accessed some of the material by holding down the mylar cap of the head and removing the sample from the inside using tweezers or a shovel, depending on the size of the material. Collection and containment of material by this method, combined with the previous collection of material outside the head, resulted in a total mass exceeding the required 60 grams.
Next steps and save
Future action and analysis
The team will spend “the next few weeks” developing and practicing a new procedure to remove the remaining “asteroid sample” from the head of the TAGSAM sampler, while at the same time processing the material collected this week. The OSIRIS-REx science team will also continue its plan to characterize the extracted materials and begin analyzing the sample obtained so far.
Save the sample
All care work on the sample – and on the TAGSAM head – is performed in a specialized glove under a stream of nitrogen to prevent its exposure to the Earth's atmosphere, and to preserve the original state of the sample for subsequent scientific analysis. Any proposed solution for extracting residual material from the head must be mountable within the glove and not compromise the scientific integrity of the kit, and any procedure must comply with clean room standards.
While the procedure for accessing the final portion of the material is still under development, the team removed the TAGSAM head from the gauntlet's active nitrogen flow and stored it in its “transport container,” sealed with an O-ring and enclosed in a ring. Teflon bag is sealed to ensure the sample is kept safe in a stable, nitrogen-rich environment.
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