SCIENCE + TECHNOLOGY

NASA overcomes months-long hurdle in accessing OSIRIS-REx asteroid material that landed in Utah

Jan 12, 2024, 2:00 PM | Updated: 5:28 pm

SALT LAKE CITY— Scientists at the Johnson Space Center in Houston have gotten past a nearly three-month-long obstacle standing in the way of them and treasured material from an asteroid. The obstacle: two screws.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx capsule landed in Utah’s West Desert near the U.S. Army Dugway Proving ground last September. Inside it was material from the 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid Bennu.

The mission lasted seven years. From its launch in 2016 to the touchdown and sample collection on Bennu in 2020 to its highly anticipated landing in Utah in September 2023.

This was the very first time the United States obtained a physical sample from an asteroid.

What was inside the OSIRIS-REx capsule?

The capsule was loaded up and shipped out of Dugway fairly quickly after its arrival back on Earth. In October, scientists at the Johnson Space Center were able to obtain just over 70 grams of material from the capsule.

However, NASA said two of the 35 fasteners they needed to remove to get to the rest of the sample, would not come off. The curation team had to, “design, develop, and test new tools” to get them off, said Johnson Space Center Chief Scientist Eileen Stansbery.

Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission told KSL NewsRadio, that the team still needs to get a couple more pieces of the capsule off. They’re hoping to have it all out on trays in the next week or so.

“It’s kind of like having a second Christmas,” Lauretta said. “You get to open the package again and see if there’s anything new inside of it they may enhance the science results you’ve already uncovered.”

Lauretta said the initial 70 grams had an abundance of chemicals to support the theory that an asteroid, like Bennu, brought the building blocks of life to Earth billions of years ago.

Scientists say the Earth was uninhabitable with flowing lava and magma, before something, potentially an asteroid, crashed and brought water and other essential things that allowed life to eventually form.

“Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur…those abundant in the Bennu samples,” Lauretta said.

Lauretta also said that some of the samples had a salty-like crust. That suggests Bennu had a large body of water at some point.

He hopes to find and study larger material of that kind in the main collection chamber.

What happens next?

After researchers remove and weigh the sample, Lauretta said they will fully catalog it by March.

There are already portions of the sample in several states and countries around the world. There, they’ll be studied by scientists for years to come.

Lauretta said portions of the sample are now in:

  • The University of Arizona
  • The Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.
  • The Johnson Space Center
  • The Goddard Space Flight Center
  • The Ames Research Center
  • The Natural History Museum in London
  • France
  • Japan
  • Australia

In the coming months, scientists and researchers from all over the world will be able to request a piece.

“It is going to be a legacy that people are studying for decades, maybe even a century into the future,” Lauretta said.

Related: NASA reveals first glimpse inside capsule that landed in Utah

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NASA overcomes months-long hurdle in accessing OSIRIS-REx asteroid material that landed in Utah