NASA Opens the Lid on OSIRIS-REx's Sample Capsule

On Sunday, September 23rd, the Sample Retrieval Capsule (SRC) from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission landed in the Utah desert. Shortly thereafter, recovery teams arrived in helicopters, inspected and secured the samples, and flew them to the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR). On Monday, the sample canister was transferred to the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate (ARES) in Houston, Texas. Yesterday, on Tuesday, September 26th, NASA announced that the process of unsealing and removing the samples from the canister had begun with the removal of the initial lid.

Housed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, ARES holds the world’s largest collection of samples returned from space – aka. “astromaterials.” In anticipation of OSIRIS-REx’s sample return, this facility was augmented with a special clean room built exclusively for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission. This clean room includes custom “glove boxes” built to assist with the disassembly process (shown above). For months, curation experts have been rehearsing the intricate process of removing the samples from their container.

The first step, performed yesterday, involved the removal of the aluminum lid that protects the Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head. This component was part of the robotic arm used by OSIRIS-REx to collect rocks and dust from the surface of asteroid Bennu in October 2020. The next step will consist of separating the TAGSAM from the canister and inserting it into a sealed transfer container that will preserve it in a nitrogen environment for about two hours. This container will allow the curation team enough time to insert the TAGSAM into another unique glovebox.

These steps speed up the disassembly process while ensuring that the samples are not contaminated by contact with lab hardware or Earth’s environment. According to NASA Shaneequa Vereen, a Public Affairs Officer and Live Mission Commentator at NASA, NASA scientists reportedly found “black dust and debris on the avionics decks of the canister” once the lid was removed. While no indication has been provided, this dust and debris is likely part of the Bennu sample that escaped from the TAGSAM head during retrieval or its transport back to Earth.

The final step, the removal of the sample, will be part of a special live broadcast event on October 11th at 11 AM EDT (08:00 AM PDT), which will be streamed on NASA Live and the agency’s website. Stay tuned for more, or check out the OSIRIS-REx mission page at NASA Blods for regular updates.

Further Reading: NASA Blogs

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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