Asteroid Sample Stuck in Container: NASA’s Challenge to Extract the Pristine Material

NASA currently faces a perplexing situation with their container of dirt from the asteroid Bennu. After a remarkable seven-year mission, this precious cargo was safely delivered to Earth in September. The container, known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), however, poses a significant challenge for NASA scientists as it stubbornly resists their attempts to open it. The TAGSAM must be opened within a specialized glovebox to prevent any contamination from Earth. To study the sample in its pristine state, all extraction procedures necessitate a sealed clean box submerged in an active flow of nitrogen accessible through attached gloves. The TAGSAM represents the collection arm’s head, which successfully scooped up a sample of dirt from the surface of the asteroid Bennu in 2020. This head was then securely sealed within a canister that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft catapulted towards Earth en route to its next observation target. Although the canister has been opened, NASA encounters a hurdle due to two fasteners, out of the 35 used, that cannot be removed with the current approved tools for the glovebox. While removing the TAGSAM head from the glovebox would be an alternative, it risks exposing the sample to substantial contamination. Thus, finding a solution that satisfies the demands of the mission requires careful and innovative maneuvering.

NASA’s team acknowledges the need to develop new approaches to safely extract the material from the TAGSAM head. This undertaking demands creativity and caution to uphold the sample’s integrity and cleanliness. Erin Morton from NASA discusses the team’s dedication in a recent blog post, affirming their commitment to the safe handling of the sample while striving to gain access to its mysterious contents. The current focus lies on implementing novel techniques to carefully extract the material, ensuring that the sample remains unharmed and uncontaminated throughout the process. The team is diligently working on this intricate problem and anticipates a solution to emerge in the coming weeks. With careful planning and expertise, NASA hopes to unlock the secrets contained within the TAGSAM container, opening up new possibilities for scientific exploration.

In addition to the challenge of accessing the TAGSAM sample, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team faces an exciting predicament. The original goal was to capture a minimum of 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of Bennu dust using the TAGSAM. However, by meticulously examining the material from the travel canister and the exterior of the TAGSAM, the team has successfully collected an astonishing 70.3 grams (2.48 ounces) of pristine asteroid Bennu material. Yet, this is only the beginning, as the container is estimated to contain an additional 250 grams (8.8 ounces) of dirt. This abundance of material holds tremendous scientific potential, offering remarkable insights into the composition and nature of asteroid Bennu. The opportunities for groundbreaking research and discovery await once the sample is fully accessible and ready for analysis.

While the scientists continue to work on a solution for opening the TAGSAM container, precautions have been taken to ensure the sample’s preservation. NASA has carefully placed the TAGSAM back into the transfer container, sealing it with an O-ring and enclosing it within a teflon bag filled with nitrogen. These measures serve to maintain its cleanliness and protect it from contamination until the extraction challenge is resolved. Simultaneously, the OSIRIS-REx team can already begin the scientific investigation of the captured 70.3 grams of asteroid material, providing valuable insights even before accessing the remaining dirt within the container. The anticipation surrounding the analysis of the sample grows, drawing nearer to unveiling the sparkling black dirt obtained by the OSIRIS-REx mission, which embarked on its ambitious journey back in 2016.

NASA finds itself immersed in the complex task of extracting the asteroid Bennu sample from the TAGSAM container. Overcoming the challenges posed by this sealed container requires ingenuity, precision, and adherence to strict clean room standards. The team must work within the constraints of a glovebox while ensuring that the sample remains uncontaminated. Simultaneously, the astounding scientific potential of this bounty of asteroid material unveils itself, fueling the determination behind NASA’s quest to safely access and study the contents of the TAGSAM container. As NASA continues to address this intricate problem, the world eagerly awaits the unveiling of discoveries that will shed light on the mysteries of our cosmic neighborhood.


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