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NASA works to head off losing too much Osiris-Rex asteroid dust

24 October 2020, MVT 14:51
This NASA frame grab image from a gif series captured by the spacecraft’s SamCam camera on October 22, 2020 shows the sampler head on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid Bennu. The U.S. space agency released October 21 the first images of the soil sampling operation of asteroid Bennu by the Osiris-Rex probe the day before, which show that the device has probably succeeded in recovering dust particles or pebbles. The probe touched the ground of the asteroid for about 6 seconds to recover, with the help of an arm, grains of sand and dust from the soil of Bennu, lifted from the surface by a blast of compressed gas. Handout / NASA / AFP
24 October 2020, MVT 14:51

NASA said Friday that its robotic spacecraft Osiris-Rex had succeeded in collecting a large sample of particles from the Bennu asteroid this week -- but so much that it was leaking.

The team in charge of the probe is now working to quickly stow the remaining samples that would eventually be delivered back to Earth to provide key scientific insights.

"A substantial fraction of the required collected mass is seen escaping," mission chief Dante Lauretta said in a phone briefing with journalists.

Osiris-Rex is set to come home in September 2023, hopefully with the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era, which will help unravel the origins of our solar system.

The probe is thought to have collected some 400 grams of fragments, far more than the minimum of 60 grams needed, Lauretta said.

But the lid for the collector at the end of the probe's arm where the fragments are being stored has been slightly wedged open by larger rocks, creating a leak, the scientists suspect.

Five to 10 grams have already been observed around the collection arm in a cloud remaining more or less in the surrounding area due to the microgravity environment which makes fragments behave like fluids.

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

As a result, a plan to carry out a mass measurement on Saturday has been cancelled since it could risk scattering further samples.

The task is now to reduce as much as possible the spacecraft's activities and prepare to stow the material in a capsule on the probe as quickly as possible.

Is Osiris-Rex, launched more than four years ago, at risk of losing its treasure? The volume of the leak is not yet precisely known, but the experts seemed relatively confident that would not be the case.

"Bennu continues to surprise us with great science and also throwing a few curveballs," Thomas Zurbuchen, a NASA associate administrator, said in a statement.

"And although we may have to move more quickly to stow the sample, it's not a bad problem to have. We are so excited to see what appears to be an abundant sample that will inspire science for decades beyond this historic moment."

Washington, United States | AFP

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