May 21, 2024

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Several months later, NASA was able to open a container containing astronomical materials from the asteroid Bennu

Several months later, NASA was able to open a container containing astronomical materials from the asteroid Bennu

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

For the better part of four months, scientists at a pot in Houston They wondered about a puzzling mystery. An elegant metal container held a sample that could shed light on the early days of the solar system, and perhaps even the future. Origins of life on Earth.

But it didn't open.

The disc-shaped container, about the size of the rim of a small tire, was the culmination of an ambitious mission to collect samples from a distant asteroid. Pinoand return them to Land. At the end of September 2023, a spacecraft was launched from a pot He returned the container to Land After a journey that lasted seven years space.

“I think people who saw the story in… Media, you think: “It's just a screw, how hard can it be?” announced to Washington Post Salvador Martinezan engineer who worked on the sample return mission.

The mission overcame obstacles until it encountered an unexpected obstacle: the container containing the samples could not be opened due to two stuck screws. (Archives)

Cap screws were not the company's biggest concern. a pot When the project started. There were countless routes to the mission Osiris Rex — named after the Regolith Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security Explorer spacecraft that traveled to the asteroid — could have gone wrong before scientists received the sample and its inflexible container.

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The spacecraft had a challenging mission: it was launched in 2016 on a seven-year journey to meet up Pinoorbits the asteroid, collects a sample from its surface, and returns home.

Even the return of Bennu's sample was risky. On a flight in September, Osiris Rex It ejected a return capsule with the sample container, which survived reentry and deployed the faulty parachute to the ground, completely intact and upright, in a desert Utah.

OSIRIS-REx sample preservation officer Nicole Lunning and her team worked under restricted conditions to prevent sample contamination, a task that can be compared, as Martinez put it, to “disassembling a computer with kitchen gloves.” (NASA/Robert Markowitz/European Press)

for this reason, Nicole Lunningthe team's main sample curator Osiris RexHe hoped that the hardest part of the mission would be behind him once the capsule was moved to Johnson Space Center to Houston. One important consideration remained: ensuring that the asteroid samples inside the container were not contaminated with any terrestrial material.

in HoustonThe container was stored inside a closed box the size of a double bed. Scientists could only handle it by inserting their gloved hands through ports built into the box, which limited its range of motion. “It's like disassembling a computer using kitchen gloves.”he explains Martinezchief mission engineer.

It shouldn't be a problem for the team. LunningWho dismantled the capsule inside the box. In October, they faced the real task. Scientists removed the screws holding the capsule together one by one. At the end of the process, they found two screws measuring less than a centimeter in size, which not only did not move, but began to distort the scientists' tools.

Engineers designed a special metal clip that makes it easier to handle stubborn screws, and on January 10 they were finally able to open the container and secure the sample for analysis. (EFE/NASA/Erika Blumenfeld and Joseph Aebersold)

a team Lunning He was still able to pick up about 70 grams of dust and rocks by reaching into parts of the container with tweezers and shovels. Enough to exceed the mission target of 60 grams. But most of the screen was stuck inside.

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It was called Martinez To assist in disassembly. His team studied pending closures and the restrictions imposed by quarantine on containers in a sealed box. The space was too small for large instruments; The lubricant for the screws could have contaminated the samples.

In January 2024, engineers built a rectangular metal clip that attaches to the edge of a container and allows a worker to lower a screwdriver-like head onto a screw. On January 10, they carefully turned the knobs until the screws finally came loose. Once the cap was removed, several scientists stood holding the metal clip while one colleague exclaimed: “Let's go home!”.

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

“It's hard to put into words what he means to our team,” he said. Martinez.

the a pot The total mass of the sample recovered has not yet been announced PinoHe said Lunning. He added that every gram will help in research into the formation of the first asteroids in the solar system and the basic elements of life.

Martinez He said the team will try to diagnose why the fasteners are sticking, research that could help the company's engineers. a pot To learn more about how its components behave on long space missions. Right now, you'll be wondering how a priceless asteroid specimen was preserved thanks to the invention of an elaborate screwdriver. “We will be ready for other missions as they occur,” he says. Martinez. “Until then, we're going to celebrate a lot.”

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(c) 2024, The Washington Post