A NASA spacecraft is littered with a lot of asteroid debris, causing it to become jammed and drift precious particles away into space.
The Osiris-Rex spacecraft briefly touched the asteroid Bennu this week, marking NASA’s first attempt at such a mission.
The mission’s chief scientist, Dante Loretta, said the operation collected much more material than expected – hundreds of grams – to bring it back to Earth. However, the sample container at the end of the robot’s arm penetrated deep into the asteroid and with this force, it absorbed the rocks and darted around the edge of the cap.
“We are about to be a victim of our success here,” Loretta said at a hastily arranged press conference.
Scientists were stunned – and then horrified – on Thursday when they saw images coming from Osiris-Rex after touching it and successfully setting off on 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
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.
“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.
Osiris-Rex will leave the asteroid’s vicinity in March – as soon as possible, given the relative positions of Earth and Bino. The samples won’t return until 2023, seven years after the spacecraft blasted off Cape Canaveral.