EXPLAINER: Sealed NASA capsule that landed in Utah finally opened, here’s what they found

Jan 17, 2024, 3:20 PM | Updated: 5:35 pm

DUGWAY — NASA team members have been working for months to open a sealed capsule with space samples that landed in Utah back in September. Finally, crews were able to open the previously stuck capsule.

The OSIRIS-REx mission

Launched on Sept. 8, 2016, the mission was the first of its kind for the U.S. to gather material from an asteroid according to NASA’s website.  The full name is a mouth-full: Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer. It was nick-named OSIRIS-REx for short.

The spacecraft traveled to an asteroid near the Earth named Bennu, and was able to collect a sample of rocks and dust from its surface.

OSIRIS-REx then released a capsule to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023, with those samples of Bennu. The capsule parachuted down to the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range in Dugway, where teams were ready to receive it.

KSL NewsRadio spoke with Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission and regent professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona. The spacecraft that collected the sample was a complex series of layers.

“When we got inside the capsule which we did very quickly, within a couple of days of landing on the ground, we got the sample returned capsule open. Inside there was the sample collection device called the TAG-SAM which stands for ‘touch-and-go-sample-acquisition-mechanism,'” Lauretta said. “This was the piece of hardware that actually contacted the surface of Bennu and scooped up the sample.”

OSIRIS REx curation team attempting to remove the two stuck fasteners that are currently prohibiting the complete opening of the TAGSAM head. Photo Date: January 10, 2024. Location: Bldg. 31 – 2nd Floor – OSIRIS-REx lab. Photographer: Robert Markowitz

Opening the capsule

There was a slight hiccup in the plan when two of the fasteners were stuck.

“There were two fasteners or screws that were stuck and we encountered that very quickly after arrival at Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas,” Lauretta said.

Teams have been working for months to remove those fasteners and extract the samples.

“The good news was we could actually access the sample inside the TAG-SAM by bringing it out through the in door. …We could see the large particles we pulled out over 60 grams of material which was the mission requirement,” Lauretta said. “One thing you learn in a program of this scale and time is patience. And you understand that things happen, that hardware doesn’t always behave the way you expect it to. You’ve got to take your time, be deliberate and solve the problem.”

Despite the setback, teams began to study and distribute the materials they were able to pull out.

Astromaterials processors Mari Montoya, left, and Curtis Calva, right, use tools to collect asteroid particles from the base of the OSIRIS-REx science canister. Credit: NASA

“We were able to go down our science path, learn some amazing information about that material and all the while you have this little treasure trove of uncertainty that there might be even more excitement,” Lauretta said. “And so it’s kind of like having a second Christmas you get to open the package again, see if there’s anything new inside of it that may enhance the science results you’ve already uncovered.”

NASA worked to develop new tools, specific to removing the lodged fasteners. Their work was successful. Now it’s all about what they’ve found inside.

What they found

“The most exciting thing so far is some of the samples are coated in a white, kind of salty crust and we’ve learned that they contain high abundances of phosphorous which is essential element for all life on Earth,” Lauretta said. “So what we call the astro-biological implications of the sample, look fantastic.”

Lauretta explained in order to understand why scientists are interested in asteroids like Bennu, we have to understand the early history of the Earth.

“When the Earth formed, very quickly after the sun formed and the proto-planetary disk where all the planets were swept up into their current sizes, it was a very violent environment and there were large impacts of planetesimals crashing into each other,” Lauretta said. “One object about the size of mars crashed into the surface of the Earth and actually spalled off material that went off to form our moon. So if there was any life on our planet during that period of history it would have been wiped out in one of those violent epics.”

All of that activity had to stop and settle down over the course of hundreds of millions of years for the conditions to be right for life to start.

“The Earth would have been barren: magma, and volcanoes would have dominated the surface, and you needed the water and you needed the carbon and the other key elements of life to show up after that period to trigger the formation and origin of life on our planet,” Lauretta said. “And that’s the role we think these carbon-rich asteroids played, they came in late and they brought the essential elements of life to Earth.”

In short, scientists hope that the capsule’s contents will give clues about whether asteroids colliding with Earth billions of years ago provided key elements for life to begin on Earth.

So what did they find? Crucial elements.

“We have found all of the essential elements of life which we normally call the ‘CHOPS’: Carbon, hydrogen Oxygen, Phosphorous and Sulfur,” Lauretta said. “Those are abundant in the Bennu samples and not only that, but they’re in chemical forms that look really interesting to try to understand. First of all how the Earth got its oceans, how it got its atmosphere, and ultimately the building blocks of life like the amino acids that make up some of our proteins, we’re finding some of those in the Bennu sample right now.”

Asteroid particles coat the base of the OSIRIS-REx science canister. Created using manual high-resolution precision photography and semi-automated focus stacking procedure. Credit: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold Astromaterials processor Mari Montoya and OSIRIS-REx curation team members set the TAGSAM (Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) down in the canister glovebox after removing it from the canister base and flipping it over. Credit: NASA/ Kimberly Allums A view of the TAGSAM (Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) from above, showing the Mylar flap with a pile of asteroid material resting on it. This image was created using manual high-resolution precision photography and semi-automated focus stacking procedure. Created using manual high-resolution precision photography and semi-automated focus stacking procedure. Credit: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold

Lauretta said he’s really hoping to find more of that crusty white material because it might represent evaporative residue from a large-scale fluid or possible ocean system on Bennu’s parent asteroid from over 4 billion years ago in solar system history.

“A really exciting insight into how organic chemistry progressed before life existed and how it might have led to the very first life forms on our planet,” Lauretta said.

Scientists should complete extracting all of the materials by this week or next week – they’re in the final stages now.

Then there will be a full photo documentation and the material will be distributed. The material that was already extracted previously has been sent to universities and museums around the world.

“We sent material to the Smithsonian, the museum in Washington D.C., researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, Ames Research Center, our colleagues in the United Kingdom at the National History museum in London and all their colleagues at the Observatory of Côte d’Azur  in France, at Hokkaido University in Japan, and Curtin University in Australia, all of these team members have received material,” Lauretta said

“Later this spring, the curation team will release a catalog of the OSIRIS-REx samples, which will be available to the global scientific community,” NASA said.

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EXPLAINER: Sealed NASA capsule that landed in Utah finally opened, here’s what they found