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NASA cracks open its first sample from an asteroid, foiling two sticky screws

NASA returned its first sample of an asteroid to Earth last year, landing a sample collected from asteroid Bennu in the Utah desert in September. Researchers were able to extract 70 grams of material from the canister that had been carried back to Earth by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, making this the largest asteroid sample ever brought to Earth. The scientists involved knew there was more material inside the mechanism, but getting at it proved difficult — until now, as NASA has announced it has now managed to open up the troublesome mechanism.

You might think it would be an easy job to unscrew a canister and dump out the material inside, but extraction was a lengthy and technical process. That’s because the focus was on preserving as much of the precious sample as possible, trying not to let any of the particles get lost. The issue was with two of the 25 fasteners that held the sample inside the collection mechanism.  The mechanism is kept inside a glove box to prevent any loss, and there were only certain tools available that worked with the glove box. So when the fasteners wouldn’t open with the tools they had, the team couldn’t just go at them with any other tool.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx curation engineer, Neftali Hernandez, attaches one of the tools developed to help remove two final fasteners that prohibited complete disassembly of the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) head that holds the remainder of material collected from asteroid Bennu. Engineers on the team, based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, developed new tools that freed the fasteners on Jan. 10.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx curation engineer, Neftali Hernandez, attaches one of the tools developed to help remove two final fasteners that prohibited complete disassembly of the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) head that holds the remainder of material collected from asteroid Bennu. NASA/Robert Markowitz

The engineers developed tools specifically for working on the two fasteners, which have now been removed. The tools required custom-made parts, composed of a particular type of surgical steel which is hard enough to work on the fasteners without risking doing any damage.

“In addition to the design challenge of being limited to curation-approved materials to protect the scientific value of the asteroid sample, these new tools also needed to function within the tightly-confined space of the glovebox, limiting their height, weight, and potential arc movement,” explained Nicole Lunning, OSIRIS-REx curator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in a statement. “The curation team showed impressive resilience and did incredible work to get these stubborn fasteners off the TAGSAM head so we can continue disassembly. We are overjoyed with the success.”

With the fasteners removed, the team will now be able to dissemble the mechanism holding the sample, called the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM, and extract the full sample. They will photograph the remaining part of the sample that is still within the TAGSAM before removing it and weighing it, to see how much material is in the total sample. The sample is being shared by institutions across the US and internationally.

“Our engineers and scientists have worked tirelessly behind the scenes for months to not only process the more than 70 grams of material we were able to access previously, but also design, develop, and test new tools that allowed us to move past this hurdle,” said Eileen Stansbery, division chief for ARES (Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science) at Johnson. “The innovation and dedication of this team has been remarkable. We are all excited to see the remaining treasure OSIRIS-REx holds.”

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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