NASA builds a new tool to pop open a jar of space dirt

The problem: Lids get stuck. Sometimes it’s a pickle jar, and sometimes it’s a container full of dust from a 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid. That latter is what NASA faced last fall when it recovered the canister from a space rock named Bennu. NASA uses sterile environments so samples don’t get contaminated by Earth air, but none of the tools approved for the locked-down boxes could remove the final two of 35 fasteners.

The solution: NASA spent three months designing and testing tools with enough torque to get the fasteners off without damaging the asteroid dust inside (or the canister, which is itself a very important piece of equipment). It also had to be non-magnetic so it wouldn’t alter the sample. After increasing the torque with each subsequent test, NASA went with a surgical stainless steel to make a really fancy ratchet bit on the end of a multipart tool engineered to work in the tight space of NASA’s sterile boxes.

With the full sample secured, NASA has begun making parts of it available to scientists eager to research what’s believed to be one of the oldest objects in our solar system.