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NASA has finally managed to open the capsule of the Osiris-Rex probe

NASA has finally managed to open the capsule of the Osiris-Rex probe

Probe mission Osiris Rex It was particularly ambitious and high-risk. Every step of this journey to asteroid Bennu could cause problems or malfunctions, leading to the failure of the expedition. It didn't happen. Despite all the obstacles, the mission was a great success for NASA teams. However, the latter did not expect a small final glitch.

The goal of the mission was to return a sample of regolith taken from the asteroid's surface to Earth. To protect this material from contamination, an automatic procedure was implemented to place the dust in a sealed capsule on board the probe. But when I arrived at the Lyndon Johnson Space Center in Houston, it was impossible to open the lid…

Launched on September 8, 2016, Osiris Rex A file to traverse the solar system to rejoin the Astronomy Bennu, which circles on an orbital orbit consisting of between 0.7 and 1.4 astronomical units (one astronomical unit is greater than the Terre-Sole distance) in a greater distance year. In December 2018, the probe was placed in orbit around the rocky body, which has a diameter of 500 metres. A long phase of measurements and surface mapping was then undertaken to find the best location for regolith recovery. Osiris Rex A sample (about 250 grams) was taken on October 20, 2020, using a Tagam system mounted at the end of an articulated arm. The probe then resumed its path toward Earth, launching above it a 50-kilogram device containing the capsule and its samples. It then continued its journey towards its second destination: the asteroid Apophis, with a rendezvous planned for 2029.

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The capsule fell into the atmosphere, protected by a shield whose temperature rose to nearly 2,800 degrees Celsius due to air friction. It reached Earth on September 24, 2023, and its fall was slowed by two parachutes. When it was recovered, people at the site noticed that the device was intact, and that there was nothing broken. The machine was returned to the Lyndon Johnson Space Center after a journey that covered 6 billion kilometers in space.

The researchers first expected to find dust from the asteroid outside the closed capsule, inside the structure of the device. They have already collected 70.3 grams of material. The success of the mission was determined by the return of 60 grams of dust, so success was already guaranteed. The first analyzes of this dust showed that Bennu is rich in water and carbon.

All that remains is to open the capsule to access the precious sample, protected from any contamination. The process is carried out in an airtight container, called a “glove box”. But teams noticed that two of the 35 locking bolts were stuck. The cover is blocked. Sample, out of range. The tools provided for this purpose do not work.

So NASA engineers designed new equipment. The constraints were strong: it was necessary to produce instruments that were robust, could be handled in the limited space of a glove box, and be made of materials that would not contaminate samples. The team developed a suitable system made of stainless steel and non-magnetic. The tools worked perfectly and the capsule was opened on January 11th. NASA has just revealed the first image of the inside of the case where we can see the black powder from Bennu.

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In the coming weeks, the amount of dust will be weighed. Samples can eventually begin to be studied, but only on about 30% of the total. The rest will be saved for later, when new and more efficient analysis techniques become available. The dust will be stored in sealed devices capable of preserving it for decades. One part will be kept at room temperature, the other at – 80°C.

Studying asteroid dust is crucial to understanding the formation of the solar system. In fact, these objects are the building blocks from which the planets are formed. Its composition has changed little over time, and thus it constitutes direct witness to the primitive conditions of the Earth's birth. Japanese probe Hayabusa 2 Already reported 5 grams from asteroid Ryugu. But the rich harvest ofOsiris Rex It promises many discoveries.