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Why the Plastic Packaging You Hate So Much Is Still Here

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A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

Throughout my childhood, I have lots of memories of getting gifts—often of the handheld, gadgety variety—and not being able to use them right away, because I couldn’t open up the package.

It was like a prison of plastic that surrounded the Tiger handheld game I just received—a well-formed blister of flexible, but thick plastic that prevented me from playing Aladdin, or opening up that pack of batteries I needed to get my Game Boy going. Pressed together in a tight, impenetrable clamp of two sheets of thick, clear plastic—literally a sandwich of fossil fuel byproducts—you basically had no choice but to use a blade to open it, with the plastic unable to be reused again.

In many ways, these products are prime candidates for blister packaging. They’re fairly small in size; they’re not cheap, but not expensive, either; at their heart, they are impulse buys.

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Blister packaging, which relies on molded plastic, was not at its heart an anti-consumer mechanism. In fact, one of its primary use cases was specifically intended to help consumers. In the 1960s, blister packs became a key element of delivering medicine to consumers—with oral contraceptives, which needed to be taken on a timed cycle, one of the first successful products to use foil-backed blister packs.

These pharmaceutical packages are fairly common today, and make it easier to properly measure dosage.

But how did packaging companies shape the plastic in such a way that they could create the blister? In many ways, it comes down to the unique properties of plastic, which vary based on type. 

The year that the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hoffman invented an early form of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. Despite his early work, the resulting material was unstable, and was perfected by two later inventors—Friedrich Heinrich August Klatte, a fellow German chemist who came up with a PVC production process in 1913 that used sunlight for polymerization, making it easier to produce; and Waldo Lunsbury Semon. In 1926, Semon, an employee of the tire manufacturer B.F. Goodrich, stumbled upon a plasticized version of the polymer that made it flexible but inert. (The product Semon developed is still sold today under the Koroseal brand name.) Together, these innovations allowed for the creation of what is one of the world’s most common materials, a material at the center of the kinds of packaging that make you want to tear your hair out.

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Pharmaceutical blister packs are close cousins of the kind that annoy people in retail settings. Image: Efraimstochter/Pixabay

Generally, plastics are susceptible to two types of phenomena, depending on the variant: Thermosetting, in which plastic becomes stronger when it gets hotter; and thermoforming, in which plastic becomes more malleable with heat.

Thermoset plastics were the most popular type around when plastic first went mainstream; bakelite, a common early type of plastic that has become collectible in recent years, is a thermoset, and it has tended to be used in heat-resistant settings.

But thanks to heat, thermoformed plastics (of which PVC is a prominent example) tend to be much more flexible and moldable, which makes them well-suited for packaging. It was these qualities that made them useful for “blister”-style packaging, which refers to the fact that there’s an object inside of the molded plastic lump, just as there’s something inside the blisters you get when you take a 10-mile walk.

Add a little bit of heat in the right spot and you can mold a sheet of plastic any which way—and ensure that plastic perfectly matches the shape of whatever piece of junk you’re trying to sell.

It’s in this spirit that new forms of packaging emerged that took advantage of these properties—first, medical packaging in the 1960s, and then starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, blister or clamshell packaging.

Clamshell packaging in particular is an interesting case. It’s the kind that people think of when they think of packaging that turns into a strugglefest. Commonly, an inventor named Thomas Jake Lunsford gets the credit for this type of packaging, which involves putting the product and any manuals or promotional materials in the middle of two plastic halves. Previously, most packaging of this nature had a cardboard back half which was easier to remove, but effectively allowed for the destruction of the package just to use it.

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I’m not totally convinced he deserves the blame, though, because if you look at his invention, it’s fairly innocuous compared to the clamped-down experiences that most people associate with wrap rage, and most importantly, Lunsford says in his patent application that his design is intended to be reusable—something most clamshell packs assuredly are not.

It may be a case where Lunsford built something with good intentions only to see later inventors develop those goods with bad intentions.

The year in which a number of Tylenol packages at a Chicago-area grocery store were tampered with, leading to seven deaths. The infamous incident led to a serious rethink of packaging by consumer goods companies, which responded to the incident by heavily investing in new methods of securing their containers, in an effort to meet Food and Drug Administration guidelines created after the incident. One such tamper-evident approach involves putting a thicker form of shrink-wrap around the lid of a bottle or can; another involves adding a piece of foil to the lid. The idea, essentially, is to ensure that you know if someone opened the container before you did. Blister-packaged pills were ahead of the game on this by two decades.

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Five variants of blister packaging, and what makes each of them “special”

  1. Face-seal blister packaging. Perhaps the most low-end of the common blister packaging types, this essentially involves a sealed piece of plastic on top of a piece of paperboard. This is used for cheap or light items, mostly, like lip balm.
  2. Trapped blister packaging. In this case, the barriers of the plastic blister sheeting are located between two pieces of paperboard, allowing for more design options on the packaging. You might see this used by memory card manufacturers like Sandisk.
  3. Clamshell packaging. Probably the kind you think of when the concept of blister packaging comes up, this product variant is known for its thick packaging and tough seal, which can be difficult to remove depending on the production process. As mentioned above, old Tiger Electronics games came in this format (among numerous other things) but the company has notably simplified the format for its recent revival.
  4. Tri-fold clamshell. When the product is particularly large or unwieldy—think a computer mouse, webcam, or similar piece of technology equipment with an uneven shape—it might use this format of clamshell, which adds a double-hinge style at the bottom of it so it can stand on its own—which also, by the way, allows it to be set on a shelf without the need for an extra hook.
  5. Skin packaging. Used for foods such as steak or other types of meat, this packaging type uses a vacuum seal on the product so that the plastic totally surrounds it. The plastic is usually thinner than what you’ll find in a blister seal, and unlike the other types, it may not use a paper card at all. While a different process from blister sealing, one might argue it actually looks more like a blister than traditional blister packaging does.

“It was very annoying. When you are buying something that is really expensive, you don’t expect it to be hard to take out of the package.”

— Reena Russell, a consultant for the energy industry, expressing her frustration with plastic blister-style packaging in a 2004 Wall Street Journal article. (As noted by the headline, “The Puncture Wound I Got for Christmas,” the package actually injured her.) Part of Russell’s frustration is that the packaging, designed as an anti-theft mechanism, had gone upmarket, and was now being used for higher end products—in Russell’s case, a handheld Palm computer. Perhaps because of frustrations like this, many modern smartphones and similar computing devices don’t actually come in blister packs anymore. (OK, maybe burner phones do.)

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Amazon has pioneered a concept called “frustration-free packaging.” Image: josemiguels/Pixabay

Why opening a package from Amazon sucks a lot less than opening a blister pack

While I can’t guarantee this will be the case every single time, one thing that you might have realized in reading the prior section is that you’ve probably run into hard-to-open blister packaging less in the past few months than you might have previously.

And the reason has everything to do with why blister packaging sucks so much.

See, the reason why blister packaging, or clamshell packaging is so annoying to open is because it’s designed as a theft deterrent device of sorts.

For retailers, shoplifting is a legitimate concern. Last year, the National Retail Federation found that theft, fraud, and other losses caused by retail shrinkage cost the industry more than $50 billion dollars in 2018 alone. 

Obviously, retailers are always looking for ways to prevent shoplifting and other forms of shrinkage, and while putting cameras and RFID sensors everywhere is fairly effective, a more old-school approach that is commonly seen today involves making the packaging really annoying.

Lots of examples of this dynamic exist. For example, part of the reason why the record industry tried making longboxes the primary receptacle for compact discs, despite the size being unnecessary, is that it made the discs harder to steal.

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If you go to a Target or Walmart, you will most assuredly run into clamshell or blister packaging, especially for high-value goods. Image: jeepersmedia/Flickr

There are a few ways to prevent things from being stolen from a store, but the most notable include making a package an unwieldy size, making it hard to hold onto, and making it hard to open without a lot of work.

Blister packaging does all of these things. It’s harder to shove in your pocket, you need tools to open the packages up, and if it’s been tampered with, it’s obvious.

The problem is that what makes something hard to steal also makes it a challenge to open for legitimate customers. It turns a normal consumer experience into something hostile. And it creates an opportunity for someone to disrupt the status quo.

This is where Amazon comes in. There are a lot of things that one can criticize Amazon for, but one of those things is not the concept of “frustration-free” packaging. Introduced way back in 2007, the company pioneered the idea that, if you’re getting a packaged shipped to your home in a box anyway, there is no need for the consumer-hostile packaging. In fact, they make it easy to open up the thing you just bought in many cases.

Recently, the company has been doubling down on this idea, pushing the companies that sell products through the service—most of the global economy, essentially—to follow its lead.

“At Amazon, it’s our mission to be the world’s most customer-centric company, and we continue to raise the bar by providing customers with what they want: minimal, protective and functional packaging,” the company stated in a document acquired by Packaging World.

Now, there are concerns about waste and sustainability driving some of Amazon’s work on this issue, but not to be lost is the raison d’être for this effort in the first place: the brick-and-mortar retail industry’s natural reliance on frustrating packaging design. Amazon turned a longstanding frustration that consumers had with brick-and-mortar stores into a competitive advantage.

Granted, they have their own issues with theft—porch pirates have been enough of an issue that Amazon has invested heavily in a home security camera business in part to help track such theft.

Amazon is a controversial company that uses controversial tactics and controversial means to get ahead. But at least they make it easier to open up the things we bought … right?

Blister packaging is annoying, it potentially creates threats of injuries, and thanks to Amazon, it might actually encourage people to use online shopping over brick-and-mortar retail.

But these things may not even be the worst elements of blister packaging. In truth, it might be the fact that it’s very tough to recycle.

There are a few reasons for this. For one, many blister packs don’t have their plastic resin identifier code labeled on the packaging, which makes it difficult for recyclers to figure out what it is. For another, the type of plastic used has a bad chemical composition for recycling, which makes it a bad idea to put in the bin.

“You absolutely want to make sure that you never ever put PVC into your recycling bin,” said Steve Alexander of the Association of Plastics Recyclers, in comments to The New York Times last year.

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An example of PulpWorks’ plastic-free taken on blister packaging. Note: No blisters! Image: Handout photo

The problems with recycling have helped encourage the creation of alternatives. One of those alternatives is called PulpWorks. Rather than covering the object in hard-to-bust-open plastic, the design of the packaging purposely leaves a portion of the object visible, while surrounding the object with biodegradable materials of the kind used in many egg cartons. It solves the theft-risk problem through design, not simply by covering the whole thing with a non-reusable plastic shell.

Paul Tasner, the co-inventor of the product, noted to The Wall Street Journal in 2014 that the design was inspired in part by irony.

“My wife and I were always complaining about opening those things and then one day she brought home the tool to seemingly end all of that difficulty,” Tasner told the paper. “It was a special set of shears designed specifically for safely cutting open blister packs and clam shells. However, in a completely absurd twist, the shears were actually packaged in a blister pack.”

Plastics have played a key role in the modern world we have today, in ways big and small. But really to solve the intertwined problems of packaging and theft, we need more clever thinkers—so that the next time a poor kid gets a Tiger Electronics game, they can actually open up the box.

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A gruesome murder in France rekindles the country’s debate on free speech and Islam

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The murder last week of a teacher who used images of the Prophet Muhammad in lessons about freedom of expression — by a teenage Muslim refugee — has sparked a solidarity movement in France and reignited the debate over Islam’s role in the country.

History and geography teacher Samuel Paty, 47, brought scrutiny this month when he showed his 12- to 14-year-old students two caricatures of Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — the same images that in 2015 inspired jihadists to kill 11 staff members at the magazine and six others in Paris. Parents and teachers at the school, located just 20 miles outside the capital, said Paty gave his Muslim pupils the opportunity to leave the classroom or look away so as not to anger them.

Idolatry is forbidden in Islam, and many devout Muslims believe any depictions of Mohammed, or any revered prophet, to be taboo. But many also found the Charlie Hebdo drawings particularly offensive not just because they depicted the prophet, but because they did so in a way that some critics said perpetuated racist, bigoted stereotypes of Muslims.

A weeks-long uproar ensued. One student’s father called for a “mobilization” against Paty — including his firing — and posted the school’s address and the teacher’s name on social media. An Islamist militant even accompanied upset parents to the school to push for the instructor’s ouster.

But the situation turned deadly last Friday when Abdoullakh Abouyezidovitch, an 18-year-old refugee from Chechnya, beheaded Paty with a butcher knife as the teacher made his way home. French authorities said the suspected attacker, who lived about 40 miles away from the school, asked students to identify Paty moments before killing him. The teenager was shot dead after he tried to stab and shoot back at authorities who closed in on him.

Police found a Twitter account suspected of belonging to the attacker since he posted a picture of the severed head along with a message: “I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, who on Saturday visited the site of the murder, said the beheading appeared to be an “Islamist terrorist attack” committed because Paty “taught freedom of expression.” He added that the terrorist sought to “attack the republic and its values,” further noting “this is our battle and it is existential. They [terrorists] will not succeed. … They will not divide us.”

On Monday, police raided numerous homes across France as part of its probe into Paty’s killing. About 15 people have been taken into custody and 51 Islamic organizations are under investigation, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said on Monday. The “enemies of the Republic” won’t be given “a minute’s respite,” he told the Europe 1 radio station.

It’s no surprise France is taking the suspected terror attack very seriously. Since the Charlie Hebdo assault in 2015, the last few years have seen high-profile knife attacks, strikes against police on the Champs-Élysées, and a coordinated assault in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds more.

But Friday’s killing strikes at the core of two of France’s most turbulent debates, which of late have somewhat fused together: whether there should be limits on freedom of speech, and how Muslims should integrate into French society.

And it’s a conversation that could continue to roil the nation’s politics for years to come.

France and “Islamist separatism”

For over a year, Macron promised to detail his views on the role of Islam in France’s secular culture. On October 2, he finally delivered that address.

“What we must attack is Islamist separatism,” he told the nation, saying extremists preyed upon desperate Muslims in desolate neighborhoods, basically creating anti-French enclaves by spreading their radical Islamic “ideology” and “project.”

“We built our own separatism ourselves,” he continued, arguing French authorities made such a situation possible by huddling immigrants together in areas apart from good-paying jobs or French public schools. To solve the problem, he offered some reforms, like within four years forbidding foreign-trained imams (Muslim religious leaders) to preach in France. Instead, all imams must be certified in the country in order to lead a congregation.

It was clear Macron, who has long called for an “Islam of France” that seamlessly integrates Muslims into the country’s society, aimed to distinguish between extremists and all Muslims. Still, his speech, and the thinking underlying it, received mixed reviews.

Some said his statements — namely, “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today, all over the world” — were incendiary, not measured. They also accuse Macron, who is up for reelection in 18 months, of trying to garner some right-wing bona fides by taking a tougher stance against Islamic extremism. “The repression of Muslims has been a threat, now it is a promise,” tweeted Yasser Louati, a French Muslim activist.

Others, like the Atlantic Council think tank’s Benjamin Haddad, said the speech and Macron’s views on the issue set the right tone.

“It underlined the urgency to fight separatism,” Haddad, who has defended Macron’s policies in Washington, DC, since 2017, told me. “It’s really more about certain neighborhoods and areas that aren’t necessarily violent … but will progressively socialize radical ideology as French republican ideals can’t get through anymore.” It’s more than an ideological fight, he added. “We’re talking about losing territory.”

“If you go to Paris, everyone will tell you there’s a problem. It’s one of the deepest societal problems in France today,” he concluded.

But what the disagreement over Macron’s speech underscores is how France has struggled to accept Muslims as they come. For example, the country has banned headscarves in public schools and for government employees while at work. The government says such measures are meant to help Muslims integrate with France’s secular culture, while critics say the focus on Islamic garb stems from bigotry.

This issue burst out into the open after the terrorist attack following the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Local debate roiled over whether outlets should refrain from producing images of Mohammad, as Islamic teaching forbids, or whether doing so is a celebration of France’s history of criticizing all religions. After all, the magazine often lampoons religious leaders like the pope.

Thousands took to France’s streets to defend that history. On Sunday, they rallied in major cities like Paris, Lyon, and Marseille in defiance of the attack, in Paty’s memory, and to bolster the notion that freedom of expression in France has no limits — even if that leads one to show images of the Islamic prophet.

“We are the result of our history: These values of liberty, secularism and democracy cannot remain just words,” a demonstrator in Paris told French media. “We have to keep them alive, and being here helps do that.”

Politicians who attended the rallies made similar comments. “I want teachers to know that, after this ignoble act, the whole country is behind them,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Sunday. “This tragedy affects each and every one of us because, through this teacher, it is the republic that was attacked.”

Importantly, the number of racist attacks in France, including against Muslims, has dropped in recent years. Such statistics offer hope that the potential scapegoating of Muslims in the coming weeks and months may not lead to a rise in hate crimes.

But Macron’s policies and the aftermath of the attack indicate that Muslims are once again under a national microscope. That, at the very least, won’t help with the assimilation problems the country aims to solve.


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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx poised to reach out and touch an asteroid

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Imagine having to parallel park a 15-passenger van in a narrow parking spot surrounded by two-storey boulders. Then imagine doing it on an asteroid hurtling through outer space at speeds of more than 62,700 miles per hour (101,000 km/h).

On Tuesday, a mission led by US space agency NASA and a team of researchers from the University of Arizona in the United States will do just that, sending commands to a small spacecraft more than 200 million miles (321.9 million kilometres) away, and guiding OSIRIS-REx to vacuum up bits of an asteroid named Bennu and bring them back to Earth. Inside those samples could be clues about the origins of life itself.

Four years ago, the US space agency deployed OSIRIS-REx on a mission to explore Bennu, a primordial piece of space debris that can trace its origins back to the formation of the solar system. Now, OSIRIS-REx is poised to land on Bennu’s surface, making for NASA’s first-ever asteroid sample return mission, and the biggest delivery of extraterrestrial material since the Apollo era of the 1960s and ‘70s.

It’s a technological feat nearly two decades in the making, and its main goal is to collect a pristine, unaltered sample from the asteroid’s surface. To do so, the spacecraft will utilise a special robotic arm with a collection head on the end. On Tuesday afternoon, the plucky little craft is expected to descend to Bennu’s surface, extend its arm and blast the asteroid with enough nitrogen gas to push surface material up into the collection head.

Studying Bennu is going to help us better understand the role asteroids might play in delivering these life-forming compounds to Earth.

Jamie Elsila, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

It will take OSIRIS-REx four hours to traverse the 0.6 miles (one kilometre) distance down to the surface, moving approximately 3.9 inches per second (10 centimetres per second). Once it gets close to the surface, the craft will extend its more than nine-foot-long (three-metre-long) robotic arm, called TAGSAM (or Touch-and-go Sample Acquisition Mechanism), which is topped with a sample collection device resembling a large shower head. It’s designed to blow a small burst of nitrogen gas onto Bennu’s surface to stir up some dust and rocks.

This material will then be collected in a ring around the head, which can store just about four pounds (1.8kg) of material. OSIRIS-REx’s goal is to collect at least 0.13 pounds (60g) of surface material from Bennu, which may not sound like a lot, but is an incredibly tricky manoeuvre to pull off that requires extreme precision – especially on a rocky, uneven surface like Bennu’s, where boulders can be the size of football pitches.

OSIRIS-REx was launched by NASA in September 2016 to travel to Bennu.

One shot

OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu in 2018 and meticulously mapped the asteroid’s surface across a two-year period to determine the best place to collect the sample. The result? A 66-foot-wide (20-metre-wide) crater near Bennu’s north pole that the team calls Nightingale. It was selected primarily because the crater appears to be young, which means that the exposed rock is likely to consist of pristine samples from when the asteroid was formed billions of years ago.

OSIRIS-REx’s collection head was designed to work best on a flat, sandy surface, which Bennu does not have. So scientists will have to aim carefully, as it could spell trouble for the mission if the arm touches down on top of rocks that are more than a few centimetres in diameter — severely limiting how much material that could be collected. Also, TAGSAM only has three nitrogen bottles, so the team can’t afford to waste them.

The team basically has a single shot to collect as much material as they can from Nightingale crater. That’s because once the nitrogen gas is fired, the surface material is disrupted, flying – hopefully – up into the collection head. It’s an opportunity literally years in the making.

Mapping the asteroid

OSIRIS-REx has two key tools that will help the spacecraft determine if it’s safe to land and start the collection process on Tuesday.

“There are two key products we’ve built, one of which is a detailed map of the asteroid’s surface, complete with potential hazards for the spacecraft,” Dante Lauretta, the mission’s principal investigator from the University of Arizona, told Al Jazeera. “And the other is a catalogue of features in the crater.”

If a sample is collected, it will be weighed and the team will determine if another attempt is necessary. But if all goes as planned and there is enough material in the OSIRIS-REx’s collection head, it will be stowed in a special canister that will be jettisoned when the spacecraft swings by Earth in 2023.

If this kind of chemistry is happening in the early solar system, it probably happened in other solar systems as well. It helps us assess the likelihood of the origin of life occurring throughout the galaxy and, ultimately, throughout the universe.

Dante Lauretta, University of Arizona

But if OSIRIS-REx’s onboard hazard map determines it isn’t safe to land in Nightingale, the spacecraft will abort the manoeuvre and the team will have to reassess its plans – and its maps. Both the onboard hazard map and the catalogue of features in the crater “change as a result of us firing the TAGSAM at the surface, so we will need to rebuild our maps,” Lauretta explained.

If the team fails to collect at least 0.13 pounds of material from Bennu on Tuesday, there is a second chance as early as December, but it might require relocating to a different crater. That manoeuvre would be a repeat of Tuesday’s plans, at another site near Bennu’s equator, called Osprey, which is equally enticing. Each dive is incredibly risky, so the team is hoping it will collect enough samples on the first try.

The samples OSIRIS-REx could send back to Earth could hold the keys to understanding how life formed here and elsewhere.

Pay dirt

Asteroid researchers have been waiting for years to get their hands on dirt from Bennu. These types of space rocks are incredibly interesting to scientists because asteroids contain pieces of the earliest materials that formed our solar system, and studying them might allow scientists to answer fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system. That’s because moons and planets have changed over time, but most asteroids have not.

“Asteroids are like time capsules floating in space that can provide a fossil record of the birth of our solar system,” Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of Planetary Science, told Al Jazeera. “They can provide valuable information about how planets, like our own, came to be.”

Bennu was selected as a target because scientists believe it is a small fragment of what was once a much larger space rock that broke off during a collision between two asteroids early on in our solar system’s history.

The rubble pile seen today is more than 4.5 billion years old, a perfectly preserved cosmic time capsule that could contain clues about the origin of life, Lauretta said.

“Bennu turned out to be exactly the kind of target we hoped it would be,” Lauretta said.

Thanks to data collected from orbit, the team has determined two key discoveries: first, that between 5 and 10 percent of Bennu’s mass is water, and second, that its surface is littered with carbon-rich molecules. This means that any samples returned to Earth could help scientists better understand what role asteroids played in bringing water to our planet, and seeding it with the prebiotic material that provided the building blocks for life.

Asteroids are like time capsules floating in space that can provide a fossil record of the birth of our solar system. They can provide valuable information about how planets, like our own, came to be.

Lori Glaze, NASA

Earlier this month, researchers on the OSIRIS-REx team made an exciting discovery, one that confirmed something the team suspected all along: Bennu is rich in organic material. The results were published in a series of papers in the journal, Science.

“Organic molecules make up all living things on Earth,” Jamie Elsila, a research scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, told Al Jazeera. “Studying Bennu is going to help us better understand the role asteroids might play in delivering these life-forming compounds to Earth.”

Studying that material could also help scientists discover whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system, as well.

“If this kind of chemistry is happening in the early solar system, it probably happened in other solar systems as well,” Lauretta said. “It helps us assess the likelihood of the origin of life occurring throughout the galaxy and, ultimately, throughout the universe.”

Once the asteroid samples are back on Earth, they will be catalogued by scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The agency will keep the majority of the material, studying some of it immediately and sending some samples to research groups around the world. NASA also plans to store a portion in a secure location in New Mexico for safekeeping.

“The Bennu sample is going to provide important science information now, but also for generations to come,” Elsila said.

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Down to the wire: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk pre-election stimulus deal

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US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin talked for 53 minutes Monday, but it’s unclear whether both sides will agree to a stimulus package in time for Election Day.

United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin “continued to narrow their differences” in a 53-minute telephone conversation on Monday about a fresh coronavirus relief aid package, Pelosi’s spokesman wrote on Twitter.

Pelosi hopes that by the end of Tuesday there will be “clarity” on whether a coronavirus stimulus bill can be passed before the November 3 elections, her spokesman, Drew Hammill, wrote. He said Pelosi and Mnuchin agreed to talk again on Tuesday, and staff working on the matter will continue “around the clock”.

Pelosi, the top elected US Democrat, said on Sunday that differences remained with President Donald Trump’s administration on a wide-ranging coronavirus relief package, but that she was optimistic legislation could be pushed through before Election Day. But, she said, an agreement would have to come through by the end of Tuesday to meet that deadline.

The White House has proposed a $1.8 trillion stimulus plan to help Americans struggling with the economic ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. Pelosi said that offer fell short in a range of areas, including tax credits for poor people, aid to state and local governments, worker protections and rent help. She has stuck to her demand for a $2.2 trillion aid and stimulus package.

Earlier this year, the US Congress passed $3 trillion in coronavirus relief, and many of the Republicans who control the Senate are loath to pass another giant stimulus bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said on Monday the Senate would vote on Wednesday on a $500bn proposal to target specific areas of need.

McConnell said the Senate would also have a separate vote on Tuesday on a new round of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, a popular programme that was launched earlier in the pandemic with bipartisan support to provide loans to small businesses.

But Senate Democrats have been holding out for a larger overall aid package. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called the Republican plan “emaciated”, saying it abandons state and local governments in need and has inadequate funding for unemployment benefits. Senate Democrats blocked similar proposals last month.

McConnell, in remarks to the Senate, excoriated Pelosi for what he said had been her “all or nothing” position on approving more coronavirus aid. “The speaker’s Marie Antoinette act needs to end,” McConnell said.

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