Sunday, October 01, 2023

Initial Curation of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample | Johnson Space Center

Initial Curation of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample | Johnson Space Center

NASA curation team members along with Lockheed Martin recovery specialists look on after the successful removal of the sample return canister lid.

Surrounded by technicians gowned in blue protective suits, Lockheed Martin Recovery Specialists, Levi Hanish and Michael Kaye, remove the lid of the sample return cannister inside a glovebox.

The new OSIRIS-REx sample clean room at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The first U.S. asteroid sample, delivered by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023, has arrived at its permanent home at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, where it will be cared for, stored, and distributed to scientists worldwide. 

The sample arrived in Houston aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 aircraft, which landed at Ellington Field. From there, it was transferred to NASA Johnson. 

The science team will spend the next few weeks in the clean room at Johnson built exclusively for Bennu samples. The clean room includes custom glove boxes built to fit the sample canister containing the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) head inside. The TAGSAM head was on the end of a robotic arm that collected rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu’s surface on October 20, 2020.   

Updates: The initial curation process for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample of asteroid Bennu is moving slower than anticipated, but for the best reason: the sample runneth over. The abundance of material found when the science canister lid was removed earlier this week has meant that the process of disassembling the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head that holds the bulk of material from the asteroid is off to a methodical start.

After the collection event on Bennu three years ago, scientists expected they could find asteroid material in the canister outside the TAGSAM head when they saw particles slowly escaping the head before it was stowed. However, the actual amount of dark particles coating the inside of the canister lid and base that surrounds the TAGSAM is even more than they had anticipated.

“The very best ‘problem’ to have is that there is so much material, it’s taking longer than we expected to collect it,” said deputy OSIRIS-REx curation lead Christopher Snead of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “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 first sample collected from outside the TAGSAM head, on the avionics deck, is now in the hands of scientists who are performing a quick-look analysis, which will provide an initial understanding of the Bennu material and what we can expect to find when the bulk sample is revealed.

“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 from Johnson.

This quick-look research will utilize various instruments, including a scanning electron microscope (SEM), infrared measurements, and x-ray diffraction (XRD), to gain a better understanding of the sample.

The SEM will offer a chemical and morphological analysis, while the infrared measurements should provide information on whether the sample contains hydrated minerals and organic-rich particles. The x-ray diffraction is sensitive to the different minerals in a sample and will give an inventory of the minerals and perhaps an indication of their proportions.

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

Over the coming weeks, the curation team will move the TAGSAM head into a different specialized glovebox where they will undertake the intricate process of disassembly to ultimately reveal the bulk sample within.

NASA plans to share these initial findings, plus first images of the sample, in a live broadcast on October 11, 2023.

Follow sample-delivery updates on NASA's OSIRIS-REx blog:


University of Arizona's OSIRIS-REx Mission Page:

Image Credit: NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston/Rachel Barry/Robert Markowitz/James Blair

Release Dates: Sept. 25-29, 2023

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