NASA Probe Is Leaking Precious Asteroid Samples Back Into Space

NASA Probe Is Leaking Precious Asteroid Samples Back Into Space
Taken on October 22, this series of three images shows debris leaking out from the sampler head. (Gif: NASA)

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft appears to be leaking tiny bits of Bennu, following a successful attempt to collect surface samples from the asteroid. Engineers blame a jammed lid for what NASA is calling a minor problem.

O-REx, as NASA team members like to call it, made brief contact with the surface of Bennu on Tuesday, October 20, marking the space agency’s first attempt at collecting surface material from an asteroid. Dramatic images sent back to Earth hinted at success, with NASA confirming this past Friday that the probe collected “more than enough material,” exceeding the team’s minimum goal at least 60 grams of surface material.

Indeed, it was a picture-perfect moment, with the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head appearing flush with the surface as it sank ever-so-slightly into the soft regolith. The timing was perfect, as a blast of nitrogen kicked up surface material, enveloping the sample head in a cloud of debris.

A couple of days later, however, NASA noticed bits of debris escaping from the sample collection head. The team is attributing this to a mylar lid that won’t close shut, as it’s being wedged open by larger rocks.

“We are working to keep up with our own success here, and my job is to safely return as large a sample of Bennu as possible,” explained OSIRIS-REx principle investigator Dante Lauretta in a NASA statement. “The loss of mass is of concern to me, so I’m strongly encouraging the team to stow this precious sample as quickly as possible.”

All is not lost, as the team simply needs to stow the collected debris in the spacecraft’s Sample Return Capsule before too much of it leaks out. In the meantime, the team, led by researchers from the University of Arizona, doesn’t want O-REx to make any superfluous movements, which is why they cancelled the Sample Mass Measurement activity this past Saturday and also a braking burn that was supposed to happen on Friday, in order to minimise the craft’s acceleration.

Calling it a “curveball,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, said in a statement, “we may have to move more quickly to stow the sample,” but “it’s not a bad problem to have.” He’s “excited to see what appears to be an abundant sample that will inspire science for decades beyond this historic moment.”

Stunning Images Show NASA’s Attempt at Scooping Samples From an Asteroid

Images captured by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx show the spacecraft’s sample head touching the surface of asteroid Bennu, which then became enveloped in a cloudy burst of dust and rock. The team now has to figure out how much surface material was collected, if any, but these images are being taken as...

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The team is finalising a plan for storage, including a timeline for when that might happen. An update is expected very shortly. We should also find out if the team wants OSIRIS-REx to perform another sample collection attempt, which didn’t seem necessary before, but now, with the leaking cargo, who knows. Assuming all is well and the material can be stored in the Sample Return Capsule, the spacecraft will depart Bennu in March 2021, when Earth and the asteroid are in a favourable alignment.