SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

Pleasant surprise greets scientists opening asteroid sample dropped from space

Oct 4, 2023, 3:58 PM

NASA asteroid sample...

Scientists, taking their first glimpse of a sample collected from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, have stumbled upon a good bit more than they expected. (Robert Markowitz/NASA)

(Robert Markowitz/NASA)

(CNN) — Scientists have taken their first glimpse of a sample collected from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu — and stumbled upon a good bit more than they expected.

When they opened the canister containing the sample on September 26, the researchers discovered an abundance of dark, fine-grained material on the inside of the container’s lid and base surrounding the mechanism used to collect the extraterrestrial rocks and soil. That unexpected debris could reveal key insights about the asteroid before the primary sample is analyzed.

The sample’s historic landing in the Utah desert on September 24 marked the culmination of NASA’s 7-year OSIRIS-Rex mission, which traveled to Bennu some 200 million miles (320 million kilometers) from Earth, touched down on the asteroid and then flew back by Earth for the sample drop. (Total trip distance: some 3.86 billion miles.)

The mission team whisked away the canister the day after its arrival to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, which has a clean room specially built for careful analysis of the cosmic sample.

What the Bennu sample could reveal

Asteroids are remnants from the formation of the solar system, offering insights into what those chaotic, early days were like as the planets formed and settled into place. But near-Earth asteroids also pose a threat to our planet, so understanding their composition and orbits is key to unlocking the best ways to deflect space rocks on a collision course with Earth.

When OSIRIS-REx briefly used its TAGSAM, or Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism head, to disturb the surface of Bennu and collect a sample in October 2020, it gathered so much material that particles could be seen slowly drifting off into space before the head was stowed in the canister.

This led scientists to believe they might be able to do a quick analysis of any material they discovered upon opening the canister — and there’s plenty of it before they even reach the bulk of the sample, located within the mechanism head, which means the scientists will need to take their time to collect all of the material.

“The very best ‘problem’ to have is that there is so much material, it’s taking longer than we expected to collect it,” said Christopher Snead, deputy OSIRIS-REx curation lead, in a statement.

“There’s a lot of abundant material outside the TAGSAM head that’s interesting in its own right. It’s really spectacular to have all that material there.”

The actual asteroid sample won’t be revealed until October 11 in a live NASA broadcast. The TAGSAM head will be moved to a new specialized glovebox for careful disassembly, unveiling the sample inside.

Meanwhile, the quick-look analysis of a sample taken from outside the TAGSAM head is underway, and it could offer initial findings from the material collected from Bennu.

“We have all the microanalytical techniques that we can throw at this to really, really tear it apart, almost down to the atomic scale,” said Lindsay Keller, OSIRIS-REx sample analysis team member, in a statement.

The team will use scanning electron microscopes, X-rays and infrared instruments for a first examination of the material collected from Bennu.

Together, the instruments will provide scientists with an understanding of the sample’s chemical composition, detect any hydrated minerals or organic particles, and reveal any abundance of specific types of minerals present on the asteroid.

“You’ve got really top-notch people and instruments and facilities that are going to be hitting these samples,” Keller said.

The initial analysis will help researchers have a better idea of what to expect from the bulk sample collected from Bennu.

Scientists believe that asteroids like Bennu might have delivered necessary elements such as water to Earth early in our planet’s formation — and studying the pristine sample could answer lingering questions about the origins of our solar system.

Meanwhile, the spacecraft that delivered the sample, now named OSIRIS-APEX, is on its way to study the near-Earth asteroid Apophis, which will come close enough to Earth in 2029 to be seen by the naked eye.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live

Science & Technology

green rows of tomato plants...

Mike Anderson

Iceland facilities excite Utah delegation about geothermal possibilities

Some state leaders are learning how small geothermal plants could power communities of the future here in Utah. With access to geothermal water from the ground, there is a lot that can be done.

9 hours ago

File - Workers install lighting on an "X" sign atop the company headquarters, formerly known as Twi...

Associated Press

What happened to the likes? X is now hiding which posts you like from other users

Social media platform X is now hiding your likes.

1 day ago

FILE: The Apple Store at Towson Town Center Mall on May 10, 2024 in Towson, Maryland. (Photo by And...

Michael Liedtke, AP Technology Writer

Apple expected to enter AI race with ambitions to overtake the early leaders

Apple’s annual World Wide Developers Conference on Monday is expected to herald the company’s move into generative AI.

4 days ago

(left) The iconic photo from the Moon looking at Earth during the Apollo 8 voyage, taken by Astrona...

Associated Press

Former astronaut William Anders, who took iconic Earthrise photo, has died in Washington plane crash

The former Apollo 8 astronaut who took the iconic “Earthrise” photo showing the planet in 1968, was killed Friday in a plane crash.

6 days ago

FILE - A hiker passes a sign warning of extreme heat at the start of the Golden Canyon trail, in De...

Emma Benson

Extreme heat is leading cause of weather-related deaths; how to protect yourself

Extreme heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths, which is why it's crucial to stay diligent in high temperatures to protect yourself and your loved ones.

8 days ago

Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends UFC 302 at Prudential Center on June 01, 2024 in Newark,...

Jill Colvin, Will Weissert, and Meg Kinnard, Associated Press

Trump joins TikTok and calls it ‘an honor.’ As president he once tried to ban the video-sharing app

Donald Trump has joined TikTok, the video-sharing app he once tried to ban as president. He posted his first video from a UFC fight in New Jersey on Saturday night.

11 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Photo courtesy of Artists of Ballet West...

Ballet West

The rising demand for ballet tickets: why they’re harder to get

Ballet West’s box office is experiencing demand they’ve never seen before, leaving many interested patrons unable to secure tickets they want.

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 internet safety tips for kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why printer security should be top of mind for your business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light up your home with these top lighting trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for hassle-free computer repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Pleasant surprise greets scientists opening asteroid sample dropped from space