NASA has finally opened the precious asteroid case, and you can look inside

NASA has finally opened the precious asteroid case, and you can look inside

Inside Building 31 at the Johnson Space Center, NASA scientists opened the metal canister containing rocks the agency picked up from a distant asteroid.

NASA spent months trying to release two “stubborn” fasteners on the canister’s lid, which was no easy feat. The asteroid vessel, after parachuting from outer space, was isolated inside a specially designed glove box, with limited tools and access.

Now, the lid is open, and the agency has captured an image of the bulk of what it captured of Bennu, a 1,600-foot-wide asteroid made up of rocks and rubble. It’s the prize for the agency’s first-ever mission to return original pieces of an asteroid to our planet, an endeavor called OSIRIS-REx (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer).

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“It’s open! It’s open! And ready to be rounded up,” NASA wrote on Xformerly Twitter.

You can see dark rocks up to about 0.4 inch (1 cm) across, and smaller particles of various sizes.

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Pieces of asteroid Bennu inside NASA's OSIRIS-REx sample tray.

Pieces of asteroid Bennu inside NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample tray.
Image credit: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld/Joseph Aebersold

These samples are invaluable. Asteroid Bennu, like many asteroids, is a preserved time capsule from our ancient solar system. They are about 4.5 billion years old, so these pristine rocks can provide scientists with insight into how objects like planets formed, and how Earth got its water.

To capture these samples, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approached the asteroid Bennu in October 2020 and extended an arm containing the canister (called TAGSAM, or Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism). The spacecraft then hurtled toward Bennu for just five seconds, blowing nitrogen gas onto the asteroid, forcing rocks and dust into the canister.

More than three years later, pieces of Bennu are safely stored at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Over the next two years, NASA’s science team will intensively study these samples. But it won’t store them. The agency said that more than 200 scientists worldwide will conduct research on Bennu’s rocks and dust. What’s more, some asteroid samples will be preserved for future scientists – using technology we don’t have or haven’t even imagined – to analyze.

What secrets will Benno reveal?

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