NASA has opened the container of OSIRIS-REx samples for the first time in over seven years. Scientists at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston lifted the outer lid of the container just two days after the return capsule of OSIRIS-REx landed in the northern Utah desert.
“Scientists were breathless when the lid was lifted” said NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division. The operation revealed “dark dust and sand-sized particles inside the lid and base” they added.
That dust once resided on the surface of an asteroid called Bennu, the centerpiece of the OSIRIS-REx mission launched in 2016. The asteroid, measuring 500 meters wide, was reached in December 2018 and captured a sample from the rock in October 2020 using its mechanism called TAGSAM. The container with the material landed in Utah inside the return capsule of OSIRIS-REx and was promptly transported to Houston on a NASA aircraft. It will be stored and cared for at JSC, where the team will oversee its distribution to scientists worldwide.
Researchers will study the sample for decades to come. The research will involve insights into the formation of the Solar System and its early evolution. Subsequently, there will be investigations into the role that carbon-rich asteroids like Bennu may have played in seeding the Earth with the building blocks of life.
The container must wait
However, research cannot begin just yet. The ARES team has not yet had access to the main sample. Disassembling the TAGSAM apparatus, a complex operation that will take a considerable amount of time, is required to do so. “There is a very high level of attention from the team. The sample will be carefully revealed to allow for hardware removal without coming into contact with the sample inside” wrote JSC officials in a blog post (ref.).