Cape Canaveral, Florida – Scientists said on Friday that a NASA spacecraft is filled with a lot of asteroid debris captured this week, causing it to become jammed and drift precious particles away into space.
Scientists announced the news three days after the Osiris Rex spacecraft briefly touched the asteroid Bennu, NASA’s first attempt at such a mission.
The mission’s chief scientist, Dante Loretta of the University of Arizona, said Tuesday’s operation 200 million miles away collected much more material than expected to bring it back to Earth – in hundreds of grams. The sample container at the end of the robot’s arm penetrated very deep into the asteroid with such force, however, the rocks were sucked in and jammed around the edge of the cap.
Scientists estimate that the sampler is compressed as much as 19 inches (48 cm) into rough, crumbling, black terrain.
“We are about to be a victim of our success here,” Loretta said at a hastily arranged press conference.
Loretta said there was nothing the flight controllers could do to clear obstructions and prevent more Bennu pieces from escaping, other than inserting samples into the return capsule as quickly as possible.
So, the flight team was scrambling to put the sample container into the capsule early Tuesday – much sooner than originally planned – for the long flight home.
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“Time is of the essence,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s chief of science missions.
This is NASA’s first mission to recreate an asteroid sample. Bennu was chosen because its carbon-rich material is believed to contain the building blocks preserved in our solar system. Obtaining bits of this cosmic time capsule could help scientists better understand how planets formed billions of years ago and how life arose on Earth.
Scientists were stunned – and then horrified – on Thursday when they saw photos coming from the Osiris-Rex after the hugely successful touch and launch at Bennu two days earlier.
A cloud of asteroid particles can be seen orbiting the spacecraft as it moves away from Bennu. The situation appears to stabilize, according to Loretta, once the robot arm is in place. But it was impossible to know exactly how much was lost.
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The over $ 800 million mission requirement was to return at least 2 ounces (60 grams).
Regardless of what’s on board, Osiris-Rex will still leave the asteroid’s vicinity in March – this is the earliest possible departure time given the relative positions of planet Earth and Benno. The samples won’t return until 2023, seven years after the spacecraft blasted off Cape Canaveral.
Osiris-Rex will continue to turn away from Bennu and never turn around again, as he awaits his scheduled departure.
Due to the sudden turn of events, scientists will not know how much the sample capsule holds until it returns to Earth. They initially planned to rotate the spacecraft to measure the contents, but this maneuver was canceled because it could spill more debris.
“I think we will have to wait until we come home to know exactly how much we have,” Loretta told reporters. “As you can imagine, this is difficult. … But the good news is that we see a lot of material.”
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Meanwhile, Japan is awaiting the second batch of samples taken from a different asteroid, which is scheduled to return in December.