Unexpected obstacles are standing in NASA’s way as it attempts to solve the secrets of space. To the dismay of scientists and engineers, the space agency recently revealed its OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample; nevertheless, a refractory container lid is causing major delays in accessing the majority of the asteroid material.
OSIRIS-REx, a spacecraft on a mission to collect samples from the asteroid Bennu, successfully acquired preliminary material analysis and images of the cosmic pebbles scattered around the top of the sample container. However, the majority of the sample remains tantalizingly locked away. NASA’s announcement about this hiccup sheds light on the complex nature of space exploration.
When OSIRIS-REx reached Bennu, it used a compressed nitrogen puff to collect dust and pebbles into the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM). While most of the sample ended up where it was intended, a surprising amount of regolith was found scattered around the avionics deck. NASA’s challenge now is to unlock the sample container, a task made more difficult by the requirement to maintain a nitrogen atmosphere within a glovebox to prevent Earth’s atmosphere from contaminating the samples.
The OSIRIS-REx team has managed to remove most of the 35 fastening bolts, but two have proven to be stubborn adversaries. They have exhausted all approved tools for the TAGSAM hardware and are now developing new approaches to release these final bolts without jeopardizing the sample’s integrity.
Despite these challenges, there is a silver lining. The material collected from the top of the sample container has already exceeded NASA’s mission goals, offering a glimpse into the wealth of space rock dust hidden within Bennu. The detection of carbon compounds and water in the regolith is particularly exciting, as it suggests that Bennu may contain the chemical building blocks of life.
While the team continues to work diligently on the remaining bolts, preliminary analysis of the exterior sample is ongoing. The majority of the sample collected will be preserved for future scientific endeavors, promising exciting discoveries and potential insights into the origins of our solar system. NASA’s perseverance in the face of adversity underscores the unwavering commitment of scientists and engineers to explore the cosmos and unlock its secrets, one stubborn bolt at a time.