After several months, NASA managed to open a container with astronomical material from the asteroid Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx mission, short for Origins Explorer, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Regolith Security, was launched in 2016 with the aim of collecting samples from asteroid Bennu and returning them to Earth for study. (pot)

For the most part of four months, scientists pot In houston They were thinking about a terrible riddle. A beautiful metal container contained a sample that could shed light on the early days of the solar system, and perhaps even the future. origin of life on earth,

But it did not open.

The disk-shaped container, about the size of a small tire rim, was the culmination of an ambitious mission to collect samples from a distant asteroid, bennuand return them land, At the end of September 2023, a spacecraft from pot returned the container land after seven years of travel space,

“I think people who have seen the story media, you think: ‘It’s just a catch, how hard can it be?’ was announced on Washington Post salvador martinezAn engineer who worked on the sample return mission.

The mission overcame the obstacles until it encountered an unexpected obstacle: the inability to open the container with the samples due to two stuck screws. (archive)

The cap screw was not the company’s biggest concern. pot When the project started. There were countless ways of mission osiris-rex — named after the Regolith Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security Explorer spacecraft, which traveled to the asteroid — could have gone wrong even before scientists obtained the sample and its inflexible container.

The spacecraft had a tough mission: It was launched in 2016 for a seven-year journey bennuOrbit the asteroid, collect a sample from its surface and return home.

Even the return of the Bennu sample was fraught with danger. In a flyby in September, osiris-rex A return capsule with sample container ejected, which survived re-entry and a faulty parachute deployment, which landed in the desert, intact and completely upright. utah,

Nicole Lunning, lead sample conservator for the OSIRIS-REx team, and her team worked under restrictive conditions to prevent contamination of the samples, which was, in Martínez’s words, the equivalent of “taking apart a computer with kitchen gloves.” (NASA/Robert Markowitz/Europa Press)

So that, Nicole LueningTeam Lead Sample Curator osiris-rexThey hoped that the hardest part of the mission would be behind them once the capsule was delivered. Johnson Space Center Of houston, One important consideration was this: ensuring that the asteroid samples inside the container were not contaminated with any terrestrial material.

In houstonThe container was placed inside a sealed box the size of a double bed. Scientists could only manipulate it by inserting their gloved hands through ports built into the box, which limited its range of motion. “It’s like taking apart a computer with kitchen gloves.”explain martinezChief Engineer of the Mission.

This should not have been a problem for the team. Luning, who worked on separating the capsules inside the box. In October, they faced the real mission. One by one the scientists removed the screws holding the capsule together. At the end of the process, they found two screws measuring less than a centimeter each that not only would not move, but began to deform the scientists’ equipment.

Engineers designed a special metal clamp that made it easier to manipulate the stubborn screws, eventually managing to open the container on January 10 and secure the sample for analysis. (EFE/NASA/Erika Blumenfeld and Joseph Ebersold)

team of Luning He was still able to pick up about 70 grams of dust and stones by reaching into parts of the container with tongs and scoops, enough to exceed the mission target of 60 grams, But most of the display was stuck inside.

it was called martinez To help in disassembling. His team studied the closure and limitations imposed by enclosing the container in a sealed box. The space was too small for large tools; The lubricant for the screws could have contaminated the samples.

In January 2024, engineers created a rectangular metal clamp that clamped onto the side of the container and allowed a worker to lower a screwdriver-like head onto a screw. On January 10, he carefully turned the knobs until the screws finally gave way. Once the lid was removed, several scientists held the metal clamps and posed for photographs, while a colleague cheered: “let’s go home!”,

The results open the door to the study of materials that can clarify fundamental questions about the composition of celestial bodies and the evolution of the Solar System. (Ingrassia, Victor Edgardo)

“It’s hard to put into words how much he meant to our team,” he said. martinez,

pot The total mass of the recovered samples has not been announced yet bennuSaid Luning, Each gram will help in research on the structure of the solar system’s first asteroids and the building blocks of life, he said.

martinez He said the team will try to find out why both fasteners got stuck, research that could help the company’s engineers. pot To learn more about how its components behave on long space flights. For now, you’ll wonder how a priceless asteroid specimen was saved thanks to the invention of an elaborate screwdriver. “We will be ready for other missions as they arise,” he says. martinez, “Until then, we’ll be celebrating hard.”

(c) 2024, The Washington Post

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