NASA’s effort to seize a chunk of an asteroid on Tuesday could have labored somewhat too properly. The spacecraft, OSIRIS-REX, grabbed a lot rock and dust that among the materials is now leaking again into house.
The operation some 200 million miles from Earth on the opposite facet of the solar was “nearly too profitable,” Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the mission, mentioned throughout a phone information convention on Friday. NASA officers fearful that with out cautious effort to safe its samples within the days forward, the mission may lose a lot of the scientific payload it traveled for years throughout the photo voltaic system to assemble.
A number of rocks wedged within the robotic probe’s assortment mechanism prevented a flap from absolutely closing. In photographs taken by the spacecraft, scientists may see bits of asteroid popping out. Dr. Lauretta estimated that every picture confirmed about 5 to 10 grams — as much as a few third of an oz — of fabric floating across the collector. That could be a important loss because the mission’s goal is to convey again at the very least 60 grams of asteroid dust and rocks.
“You’ve bought to recollect the complete system is in microgravity,” Dr. Lauretta mentioned. The particles transfer as if in a fluid, “and particles are sort of diffusing out,” he mentioned.
Nonetheless, the visible proof means that the spacecraft gathered way more than 60 grams. Thomas Zurbuchen, the affiliate administrator for science, mentioned NASA has determined to start out preparations for stowing the pattern. “Time is of the essence,” he mentioned.
If the gathering try had not succeeded, OSIRIS-REX may have made two extra makes an attempt.
Mission managers additionally determined to name off two maneuvers. One, scheduled for Friday, was to decelerate the spacecraft and to permit it to re-enter orbit across the asteroid Bennu, which is just about 1,600 toes in diameter. As a substitute, it continues to float away at a velocity of lower than one mile per hour.
The second was to spin the spacecraft round on Saturday to measure how a lot is trapped inside the gathering mechanism. However that will shake out extra materials. “So that isn’t a prudent path to go down,” Dr. Lauretta mentioned.
The gathering of a pattern was the important thing goal of the mission whose full identify is Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Useful resource Identification, Safety, Regolith Explorer. Asteroids are primitive 4.5 billion-year-old leftovers from the earliest days of the photo voltaic system. Scientists on Earth utilizing refined devices would be capable of research the Bennu materials in way more element than any devices on the spacecraft may.
On Tuesday, the spacecraft’s assortment mechanism touched the asteroid Bennu at a leisurely tempo of about 1.5 inches a second. The sampling mechanism, which resembles an vehicle air filter, had been designed to work on all kinds of surfaces starting from fully inflexible — “Like working right into a slab of concrete,” Dr. Lauretta mentioned — to one thing way more porous.
That a part of Bennu turned out to be on the softer facet, with the asteroid hardly pushing again in any respect. The sampling mechanism pushed 10 to twenty inches into the soil earlier than the spacecraft backed away, permitting it to refill its collector when a burst of nitrogen fuel from the probe stirred up the floor.
“We couldn’t have carried out a greater assortment experiment,” Dr. Lauretta mentioned.
The operation to stow the gathering mechanism could begin on Tuesday. Engineers are taking a look at methods to modify the process to attenuate the quantity of fabric that could be shaken out into house. It can take a number of days earlier than the samples are safely saved in a return capsule.
OSIRIS-REX should wait till March to go away Bennu and to return to Earth, a journey that can take two and a half years. The spacecraft will drop off the return capsule, which is able to parachute to a touchdown in Utah on Sept. 24, 2023.
OSIRIS-REX is the third mission to try to convey again items of an asteroid. A Japanese mission, Hayabusa, confronted a collection of technical malfunctions, and it barely managed to convey any samples — about 1,500 grains — again from an asteroid it was learning referred to as Itokawa. The Japanese house company despatched a second mission, Hayabusa2, to a different asteroid, Ryugu. That spacecraft is on its approach again to Earth and can drop its asteroid payload within the Australian Outback in December.