Lockheed Martin Recovery Specialists Levi Hanish and Michael Kaye cautiously removed the lid of the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return canister on the 26th of September 2023. This event marked the first time in over seven years that the canister had been opened.
Scientists at NASA's Johnson Space Centre (JSC) in Houston performed this delicate operation in the Brisbane local time. They lifted the canister's outer lid two days after the OSIRIS-REx's return capsule had touched down in the desert of northern Utah.
"Scientists gasped as the lid was lifted," reported NASA's Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division, which is headquartered at JSC. This revelation exposed "dark powder and sand-sized particles on the inside of the lid and base," they further revealed.
This particular powder had initially resided on the surface of an asteroid known as Bennu, which had been the primary target of the OSIRIS-REx mission.
The OSIRIS-REx mission embarked on its journey towards Bennu, a 500-meter-wide asteroid, in September 2016, arriving at its destination in December 2018. In October 2020, it successfully collected a substantial sample from Bennu using its Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM.
After a remarkable 4-billion-mile journey, the asteroid material safely landed in Utah within OSIRIS-REx's return capsule on Sunday, 24th September. It was then swiftly transported to Houston by plane on Monday, 25th September.
Upon arrival, the samples will be stored and curated at JSC, where the team will oversee their distribution to scientists across the globe. These scientists will conduct comprehensive research on the samples for decades. Their primary goal is to gain insights into the formation and early evolution of the solar system. Additionally, they seek to understand the role that carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu might have played in seeding Earth with the essential building blocks of life.
However, the task at hand has not yet commenced. The ARES team has not accessed the primary asteroid sample. This will require the disassembly of the TAGSAM apparatus, an intricate process that will consume a significant amount of time.
"There is a very high level of focus from the team — the sample will be revealed with an amazing amount of precision to accommodate delicate hardware removal so as not to come into contact with the sample inside," officials at JSC emphasised in a blog post on Tuesday.
In a much-anticipated event, NASA will unveil the Bennu sample on 11th October at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT).
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