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Why NASA Can't Get the OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Open

Millions of miles across space and stymied at the finish line.

By Cassidy Ward

The 2022 animated film The Bad Guys (streaming now on Peacock) features a collection of nefarious anthropomorphic animal characters up to no good. The crew is comprised of Mr. Wolf, Mr. Snake, Ms. Tarantula, Mr. Shark, and Mr. Piranha, collectively known for a series of impressive heists.

Of course, any good heist involves three important steps. First, you must get into position near your target (preferably unnoticed), next you must get your hands on the prize, and finally, you must get the prize back to a controlled environment where you can enjoy it unimpeded. NASA's recent asteroid sample return mission has succeeded in the first two steps, but is still working on that last bit.

NASA Brought an Asteroid Sample Home but Can't Get It Open

The sample return capsule from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission touches down in the desert.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission was a caper of epic proportions, several years in the making, and we’re only now reaping the rewards. OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 and spent years flying through space, cutting a path toward the asteroid Bennu. Once there, it spotted its target, deftly dipped down to scoop up a piece of the asteroid, and turned toward home.

RELATED: NASA Reveals First Details of OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample

During a flyby of Earth, the spacecraft dropped off the asteroid sample container before heading toward the asteroid Apophis. Scientists met the return capsule at its drop point in Utah’s West Desert and shipped the asteroid sample to Johnson Space Center in Houston. There, they opened the first layer of the capsule and found some bonus material coating some of the hardware. Fortunately, the material they’ve recovered so far measures in at 70.3 grams, more than the 60 grams NASA had planned to recover. Unfortunately, scientists have so far been unable to get at the main part of the sample.

The outside of the OSIRIS-REx sample return cannister

Bonus materials aside, the planned sample is inside the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) where it is safely kept separated from the rest of existence. The entire TAGSAM is being kept in a clean room at JSC where it is constantly flooded with a flow of nitrogen, a neutral gas intended to keep the sample uncontaminated. The TAGSAM’s lid is kept in place with the sample locked behind it by 35 fasteners. Removing those fasteners must be achieved in the cleanroom, inside a glovebox, using only tools which have been approved for the project. With those limitations in place, the team has been unable to remove the last two fasteners and open the sample container, according to NASA.

Scientists are now working on new methods for removing the last two fasteners. In the meantime, they’ve begun work studying the sample materials they’ve already recovered. It’s a worthwhile reminder that space exploration is difficult, even when it happens here at home. It’s also a good reminder that your caper crew is only as good as its weakest link. It’s no good stealing a safe full of valuable gems if you can’t get the safe open.

Catch The Bad Guys streaming now on Peacock.