NASA to launch delicate stowing of samples from asteroid Bennu

NASA’s spacecraft OSIRIS-Rex that collected material samples from asteroid Bennu last week is leaking materials into space due to a flap that got wedged open.

The spacecraft is set to begin a delicate operation to prevent the loss of material and store it.

Artist’s conception of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from the asteroid Bennu | Image: University of Arizona/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA launched OSIRIS-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) on September 8, 2019, to obtain at least 60gms sample from the asteroid Bennu. Bennu is a carbonaceous near-earth asteroid – about the size of a skyscraper and some 200 million miles from Earth. The scientists hope the material collected will help them unravel the origins of our solar system.

Graphic on the stages and details of the mission Osiris-REx, that took samples from the asteroid Bennu on October 20 | Image: NASA

Last Tuesday, the probe’s robotic arm kicked up a debris cloud of rocks on Bennu and trapped the materials in a collection device to return to Earth. The operation hit a snag after it picked up too big of a sample. It is estimated that it had collected 400 gms of material, far more than the required 60 gms minimum.

The collected fragments are in the collector at the end of the probe’s 10 feet arm and slowly escaping into space as some rocks have prevented the compartment from closing completely.

Now, scientists need to stow the sample in a capsule at the probe’s center. Due to the leak, scientists moved this operation up to Tuesday from the planned November 2nd date.

According to the project chief, Dante Lauretta, “The abundance of material we collected from Bennu made it possible to expedite our decision to stow.”

According to NASA, the stowing operation will take several days as it requires the team’s oversight and inputs to OSIRIS-Rex. The spacecraft will send information and images back to Earth after each step in the process, so scientists can make sure everything works as instructed. It takes 18.5 minutes for transmissions from the spacecraft to reach Earth and vice versa.

OSIRIS-REx is set to return to Earth in September 2023, hopefully with the largest sample from space since the Apollo era.

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