NASA has successfully stockpiled lavish monster from asteroid Bennu

It took some nail-biting, but the surface material that space probe OSIRIS-REx stole from Bennu last week, is safely stored.

Great relief at NASA that for the first time it has succeeded in retrieving material from a planetoid and securing it for further analysis on Earth. None of that was self-evident; sampling an asteroid more than 200 million miles away from Earth is a daunting task. And the fact that a lot of material was collected during sampling, thanks to unexpectedly optimal conditions, didn’t help either …

Good and bad news
Space probe OSIRIS-REx descended to the surface of asteroid Bennu last Wednesday to collect some soil material. And soon the redeeming word came: the probe was there – 200 million kilometers from Earth – managed to collect material. However, it remained unclear whether the probe had removed enough material from the asteroid. A few days later, NASA came up with good and bad news. The good news was the probe had collected enough soil material; researchers had hoped for a minimum of 60 grams, but analysis showed that OSIRIS REx absorbed at least 200 grams of material.

The bad news was that material from Bennu was fed to the probe – or more accurately to the soil-filled sampling head of the so-called Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) escaped. It meant that the probe was losing valuable material from Bennu. Reason for NASA to change plans. Where it was first planned to accurately map the amount of collected material before storing the material, it was decided to immediately start storing the sample.

And NASA has now announced that it has succeeded! The collected sample is safely stored in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC).

On the left you see the head of TAGSAM filled with soil material – consisting of a robot arm on which the sampling head is mounted – hanging above the SRC. On the right you can see that the head rests in the SRC. Not much later, the robot arm was disconnected and the SRC closed. Soil material is now impossible to escape from the SRC, according to NASA. Image: NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona / Lockheed Martin.

NASA employees worked around the clock for two days to make it all possible. To store the sample, the probe had to perform a series of actions hundreds of millions of kilometers from Earth. And after each action, images and data had to be analyzed to determine whether it was successful and what the next step should look like. In addition, given the great distance between the probe and the Earth, it took several minutes each time for data from the probe to reach Earth (and vice versa).

Thanks to a number of careful maneuvers, NASA finally managed to remove the sampling head that houses the soil material in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC). “We expected that we would need a few tries to get TAGSAM in the right position,” says OSIRIS REx project manager Rich Burns. “Fortunately, we succeeded in one go, so that we could immediately continue with the storage procedures.”

Enough to investigate
Images show that a very small amount of material escaped during storage, but NASA is confident that there is still enough material left for extensive analysis. That analysis will take a while; OSIRIS-REx will leave Bennu in March 2021 and must then deliver the capsule with the soil material to Earth in September 2023.

You can actually see the capsule filled with soil material as a kind of time capsule. The material collected by OSIRIS-REx is at least 4.5 billion years old and it is believed that it has hardly changed in the meantime. It is therefore hoped that the asteroid can tell us more about the conditions in the very young solar system. In addition, the material may provide more insight into the role that other similar asteroids may have played in the origin of life on Earth. It is believed that by impacting the young Earth, asteroids may have provided vital ingredients for life – such as water and organic molecules.

“I am extremely grateful that our team worked so hard and got the material away so quickly,” said lead investigator Dante Lauretta. “Now we can look forward to receiving the monster on Earth and opening that capsule.” NASA boss Jim Bridenstine agrees. “Monsters like these transform what we know about our universe and ourselves.”

For NASA this may be the first time that it has succeeded in sampling an asteroid; it is different for the Japanese space agency, which recently did it for the second time. The Japanese space probe Hayabusa2 is currently en route to Earth with material from asteroid Ryugu The material should arrive on Earth in December 2020. As soon as Hayabusa2 has delivered the material to Earth, it itself will continue for a while and go to asteroid 1998 KY26.

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