The little satellite that could: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is even more successful than the space agency anticipated. When we last left REx, he was 200 million miles away and had extended his robotic arm and blasted the surface with pure nitrogen gas and used a vacuum—one that would make Dyson proud—and sucked up space rocks on the asteroid’s surface.
But for University of Arizona planetary scientist principal investigator Dante Lauretta, it might be something rarely said in the halls of Johnson Space Center: Too successful. “This is the mission that keeps on surprising us…We could not have performed a better collection experiment: It was successful, we collected 100s of grams of samples, but the biggest concern is that particles are escaping.”
REx used a mechanism called the Touch And Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM. The device was essentially a robotic arm and a vacuum that resembled a giant, round shower-head. TAGSAM was loaded with three containers of gas—giving it three chances to collect a minimum of 60 grams (2 oz) of asteroid.
The problem: The collection capsule far exceeded the minimum requirements on the first try, and the collection head was unable to close. As a matter of fact, Lauretta’s team believes they’ve grabbed at least 400 grams of material.
However, NASA did what NASA does best: solve problems. Since the flap couldn’t close, the team wanted to minimize the amount of sample lost in space, so they focused on closing the sample head as soon as possible.
The solution: NASA’s team very meticulously moved the sample head with the open flap to a storage container and safely placed it inside. Two locking mechanisms were able to secure the samples. The arm gently tugged on the head to make sure it was set. While President Trump is focused on returning to the Moon as well as Mars, NASA views this mission as imperative as it will help explain the origins of our solar system.
Asteroids might contain carbon and other organic compounds, including the building blocks of life, not found on meteorites. To get clues about how life on Earth started billions of years ago, scientists needed to go somewhere where no life exists yet, and Bennu was the perfect candidate.
One of the reasons Bennu was selected is because scientists believe it is a fragment of what was once a much larger space rock. The theory goes that it broke off during a collision between two asteroids early in our solar system’s history. As such, the 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid is a perfectly preserved cosmic time capsule.
Now OSIRUS-REx enters the final stretch of a mission 16-years in the making. NASA started planning the mission in 2004. In 2016, REx left the confines of home and set off for Bennu. The satellite arrived at Bennu in 2018 and began its orbit, spending almost two years orbiting the asteroid using laser beams to measure the surface.
OSIRUS-REx will stay in orbit around Bennu until March before it embarks on its two-and-a-half-year return trip to Earth. Once it arrives, the sample collection canister will detach from the spacecraft and parachute down, landing in the Utah desert in September 2023.
All it has to do is travel 200 million miles and avoid space collisions and cosmic radiation, all while landing safely on Earth. But for NASA, that’s just another day at the office.
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