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OSIRIS-REx probe locks up its asteroid treasure

NASA says its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has safely stored a sample of dust and gravel from an asteroid more than 200 million miles away, a week after it was collected at the climax of a seven-year journey.

The University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million mission, said the sample should amount to much more than the 2 ounces (60 grams) that was considered the minimum for mission success.

When the van-sized spacecraft pushed its sample collection head into the crumbly surface of the asteroid Bennu on Oct. 20, it might have picked up as much as a full load of 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds). But some of the gravel got jammed in the receptacle’s lid, which led to the loss of some of the material.

That leakage forced NASA to hustle up the procedure for securing the sample, culminating in the closure of the sample return capsule on Oct. 28. Scientists got a sense of the size of the sample by checking photos of the sample collection head, but they didn’t have time to use other methods to measure the sample’s mass.

“Even though my heart breaks for the loss of sample, it turned out to be a pretty cool science experiment, and we’re learning a lot,” Lauretta said today during a teleconference.

OSIRIS-REx — which takes its Egyptian-sounding name from the acronym for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer” — was launched in 2016 and took two years to get to Bennu. The probe surveyed the 1,600-foot-wide asteroid during the two years that followed, leading up to last week’s sample collection effort.

If the mission sticks to its schedule, OSIRIS-REx will begin its homeward journey next March, and drop off its sample capsule over the Utah desert during a 2023 flyby.

Scientists hope that studying a pristine sample from Bennu will bring new insights into the origins of the solar system and the chemical building blocks for life on Earth. There’s also a chance they’ll learn more about the resources that could be extracted from near-Earth asteroids, and about the strategies that would work best if threatening space rocks had to be diverted.

OSIRIS-REx is the first NASA mission to bring back samples from an asteroid, but Japan’s Hayabusa mission did something similar a decade ago. A follow-up mission, Hayabusa 2, is due to deliver yet another asteroid sample in December. Comparing such samples should add to the prospects for scientific discoveries.

But wait … there’s more. NASA has two other asteroid missions in the works: The Lucy spacecraft, set for launch next year, will visit a series of asteroids anchored in Jupiter’s orbit. And in 2022, NASA will send the Psyche probe to study a metal-rich asteroid, also named Psyche.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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