Oct 24, 2020 - Science

NASA got an asteroid sample, but has to move fast to keep it

Asteroid bits escaping from the round sampler on OSIRIS-REx
Particles of the asteroid floating around the sampling arm. Photo: NASA

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was able to snag a large sample of the asteroid Bennu, but some of that material is now escaping into space, forcing the space agency to adjust its plans to get the sample back to Earth.

Why it matters: Scientists hope to study the sample back on our planet to learn more about the history and evolution of our solar system over the course of billions of years.

The good: The sample collection on Tuesday went according to plan, per mission managers.

  • Scientists expect that the sampler was able to grab at least the 60 grams required for the mission.
  • There is "definitely evidence of hundreds of grams of material, and possibly more," the mission's principal investigator, Dante Lauretta, said during a press conference Friday.

The bad: Some of the material gathered has jammed open the system, allowing part of the sample to be lost.

  • "My big concern now is that the particles are escaping because we were almost a victim of our own success here," Lauretta said.

What's next: Mission officials were originally going to spin the spacecraft to figure out how much sample was collected on Saturday, but that maneuver has been deemed too risky as it could lead to more sample loss.

  • Instead mission managers are now planning to store the sample to make sure that very little mass continues to escape before OSIRIS-REx can start its long journey home next week.
  • If all goes according to plan, the sample should make it back to Earth by 2023.
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