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Beyond the Mission Goals: How NASA Surpassed Expectations With Asteroid Bennu

A view of eight sample trays containing the final material from asteroid Bennu. The dust and rocks were poured into the trays from the top plate of the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head. 51.2 grams were collected from this pour, bringing the final mass of asteroid sample to 121.6 grams. Credit: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold

NASAEstablished in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Its vision is "To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity." Its core values are "safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and inclusion." NASA conducts research, develops technology and launches missions to explore and study Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond. It also works to advance the state of knowledge in a wide range of scientific fields, including Earth and space science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics, and it collaborates with private companies and international partners to achieve its goals.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>NASA’s OSIRIS-RExLaunched in 2016, the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will help astronomers investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of near-Earth asteroids.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>OSIRIS-REx spacecraft delivered an unprecedented 4.29 ounces of asteroid Bennu material to Earth, surpassing its mission goals. Despite initial challenges, the sample was successfully secured for future scientific research, ensuring a legacy of international collaboration and study of the solar system’s origins.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft delivered 4.29 ounces (121.6 grams) of material from asteroid Bennu when it returned to Earth on September 24, 2023; the largest asteroid sample ever collected in space and over twice the mission’s requirement.

Exceeding Expectations Early On

The mission team needed at least 60 grams of material to meet the mission’s science goals, an amount that had already been exceeded before the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head was completely opened. In October 2023, curation processors from the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston were able to collect small rocks and dust from inside the large canister that housed the TAGSAM head, as well as from inside the TAGSAM head itself through the head’s mylar flap.

OSIRIS-REx Astromaterials Processors

OSIRIS-REx astromaterials processors, from left, Rachel Funk, Julia Plummer, and Jannatul Ferdous prepare to lift the top plate of the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head and pour the final portion of asteroid rocks and dust into sample trays below. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Overcoming Challenges

Disassembly of the TAGSAM head was paused in late October 2023, when the team encountered two stubborn fasteners keeping them from being able to complete the process to reveal the final sample within.

After designing, producing, and testing new tools, the ARES curation engineers successfully removed the fasteners in January and completed disassembly of the TAGSAM head. The remaining Bennu sample was revealed and carefully poured into wedge-shaped containers. 1.81 ounces (51.2 grams) were collected from this pour. Combined with the previously measured 2.48 ounces (70.3 grams) and additional particles collected outside of the pour, the bulk Bennu sample mass totals 4.29 ounces (121.6 grams).

Securing a Legacy for Future Research

NASA will preserve at least 70% of the sample at Johnson for further research by scientists worldwide, including future generations.

From NASA Johnson’s repository, the Bennu material will be containerized and distributed for researchers to study. As part of the OSIRIS-REx mission, a cohort of more than 200 scientists around the world will explore the regolith’s properties, including researchers from many US institutions, NASA partners JAXAFormed in 2003, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) was born through the merger of three institutions, namely the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), the National Aerospace Laboratory of Japan (NAL) and the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA). JAXA performs various activities related to aerospace, from basic research in the aerospace field to development and utilization and is responsible for research, technology development, and launch of satellites into orbit, and is involved in advanced missions such as asteroid exploration and possible human exploration of the Moon.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]” tabindex=”0″ role=”link”>JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency), and more.

Later this spring, the curation team will release a catalog of the OSIRIS-REx samples, which will make the asteroid sample available for request by the global scientific community.

Source: SciTechDaily