NASA scientists have finally disassembled the canister containing rocks snatched from a distant "potentially hazardous" asteroid, and now you can look inside.
The sample — roughly 4.3 ounces (120 grams) of rocky space rubble that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected from the asteroid Bennu — is thought to contain some of the earliest precursors to life and is the first chunk of a space rock ever grabbed by a NASA mission.
After landing in the Utah desert on Sept. 24, the OSIRIS-REx capsule was taken to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, where scientists began working on its disassembly. Yet two out of the capsule's 35 fasteners got stuck, meaning that NASA engineers had to design and manufacture two bespoke clamp-like tools from scratch. Made from surgical steel, the tools were used to remove the clasps and crack open the capsule on Jan. 11.
OSIRIS-REx mission scientists spent nearly two years searching for a landing site on Bennu's craggy surface before the spacecraft touched down to collect the sample. Upon making contact with the asteroid, OSIRIS-REx fired a burst of nitrogen from its Touch-and-Go Sample-Acquisition Mechanism to stick the landing and prevent the craft from sinking through the asteroid, as well as to capture the sample.
The capsule's long-awaited contents include roughly 4.5 billion-year-old rocks from the earliest years of the solar system. They also contain some of the primordial elements believed to have sparked life on Earth.
Some of these building blocks — including uracil, one of the nucleobases for RNA — were recently found on the asteroid Ryugu by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Hayabusa2 spacecraft, which returned to Earth with its rock sample in 2020. OSIRIS-REx mission scientists are hoping to find other such biological precursors inside the Bennu sample.
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Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.