Returned Asteroid Sample Canister Contains Way More Asteroid Than Expected

Returned Asteroid Sample Canister Contains Way More Asteroid Than Expected

Scientists working to open up the sample canister containing rock and dust from asteroid Bennu have run into a problem: there’s just too much of it.

The process of disassembling the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) head is taking longer than anticipated due to the abundance of material found when the canister lid was removed last week, NASA wrote in a blog post. But that’s not a bad problem to have.

In October 2020, OSIRIS-REx landed on near-Earth asteroid Bennu and snagged a sample from its surface. Scientists expected to find extra bits of the asteroid in the canister outside the TAGSAM, an articulated arm on the spacecraft with a round sampler head at the end used to grab the sample. This assumption arose when they observed particles slowly escaping the head before it was stowed, according to NASA. Not only was this assumption correct, but there were also significantly more dark particles coating the inside of the canister lid and base surrounding TAGSAM than anticipated.

“The very best ‘problem’ to have is that there is so much material, it’s taking longer than we expected to collect it,” Christopher Snead, deputy OSIRIS-REx curation lead at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in a statement. “There’s a lot of abundant material outside the TAGSAM head that’s interesting in its own right. It’s really spectacular to have all that material there.”

When the aluminum lid to the sample canister was first removed, the mission team found black dust and debris on the avionics deck of the canister. Scientists are now performing a quick-look analysis of that initial sample, “which will provide an initial understanding of the Bennu material and what we can expect to find when the bulk sample is revealed,” NASA wrote.

Bennu is a small, near-Earth asteroid that makes a close pass to Earth every six years or so. Scientists believe Bennu might have broken off from a much larger carbon-rich asteroid about 700 million to 2 billion years ago, and drifted much closer to Earth since then. Analyzing the asteroid sample may help scientists piece together the origin story of Earth, and how the building blocks of life could have been delivered to our planet by way of asteroids.

The early findings from the sample, in addition to some images of the rocks and dust, will be revealed during a live broadcast on October 11 at 11:00 a.m. ET.

Over the coming weeks, the curation team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will move the TAGSAM head into a different specialized glovebox, where it will be disassembled to reveal the bulk sample within.

The OSIRIS-REx mission dropped off the asteroid samples in the Utah desert on September 24, from where it was airlifted to a clean room. From there, the clean room team packaged all the parts of the sample capsule for transport by aircraft to the Johnson Space Center. The team is being extra careful as to not let any Earthly contaminants into the sample canister, preserving the story of life as it is.

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