NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Safely Stores Bennu Asteroid Samples for Return to Earth
A NASA spacecraft stuffed more than 2 pounds of asteroid samples into a capsule to return to Earth after losing some of its precious loot due to a jammed lid, scientists said Thursday.
They won’t know the exact amount of the asteroid’s cosmic path Bennu, more than 200 million miles (322 million kilometers) away, until the capsule parachutes into the Utah desert in 2023.
“We still have a lot of work to do” to recover the samples safely, said lead scientist Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona.
Spaceship OSIRIS-REx It won’t leave the Bennu neighborhood until March at the earliest, when the asteroid and Earth are properly aligned.
OSIRIS-REx collected so much material from Bennu’s rough surface on October 20 that rocks got stuck on the edge of the container and ripped it open. Some of the samples were seen to escape into space, so flight controllers advanced on the crucial storage operation.
Based on the images, scientists believe OSIRIS-REx grabbed 4 1/2 pounds (2 kilograms) of debris, a full load. The minimum requirement had been 2 ounces (60 grams), a handful or two.
“Imagine a sack of flour at the grocery store,” Lauretta said of the initial loot.
But dozens of grams of material were lost after the successful tap and go maneuver and again this week when the robotic arm of the spacecraft moved to place the samples inside the capsule.
“Although my heart breaks over the loss of the sample, it turned out to be a pretty good science experiment and we are learning a lot,” Lauretta told reporters.
While collecting the samples, the container on the end of the robot’s arm pressed 9 to 19 inches (24 to 48 centimeters) during the six seconds of contact, indicating a sandy and flaky interior beneath the rough surface, Lauretta said.
The slow and tedious stowage operation lasted 36 hours. After each successful step, the flight controllers cheered, saving the biggest and loudest response as the capsule lid finally closed and latched, sealing the samples inside.
It will be September 2023, seven years after OSIRIS-REx was fired from Cape Canaveral, before the samples arrive here.
Rich in carbon, the Bennu in solar orbit is believed to contain the conserved building blocks of the solar system. Scientists said the remnants may help explain how the planets in our solar system formed billions of years ago and how life in Earth came to be. The samples can also help improve our odds, they said, if a doomsday rock comes close to us.
Bennu, a black, rounded rock larger than New York’s Empire State Building, could come dangerously close to Earth by the end of the next decade. The odds of a strike are 1 in 2700. The good news is that while it packs a punch, it won’t wipe out the home planet.
Meanwhile, Japan has recovered samples from other asteroids twice in the past two decades, albeit only in small quantities. The second batch will arrive in December.