Science & Technology

NASA rushes to stow ‘abundant sample’ from ancient asteroid

Washington DC, Oct 23 (efe-epa).- The Osiris-Rex probe has “collected more than enough material” from the surface of the ancient asteroid Bennu early this week and is quickly working to stow it all, the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced Friday.

Osiris-Rex collected the samples from the asteroid when it touched down briefly on Tuesday, but until now it was not known if the minimum 60-gram target had been reached.

“Two days after touching down on asteroid Bennu, NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission team received on Thursday, Oct. 22, images that confirm the spacecraft has collected more than enough material to meet one of its main mission requirements – acquiring at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of the asteroid’s surface material,” NASA said in a statement Friday.

In fact, the space agency said that some particles are slowly being lost from the collector head because larger pieces are not allowing it to seal completely.

NASA said that movement of the spacecraft may result in further loss, so it has canceled two weekend activities to focus on storing and preserving the material.

“Bennu continues to surprise us with great science and also throwing a few curveballs,” NASA’s associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen said in the 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.”

Bennu is located more than 320 million kilometers from Earth and the probe reached the asteroid after a journey of more than four years – it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in September 2016.

Osiris-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) arrived at Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018 and began orbiting it on Dec. 31, 2018.

To reach the sample collection site called Nightingale, the spacecraft had to pass “a boulder the size of a two-story building, nicknamed ‘Mount Doom,’ to touch down in a clear spot in a crater on Bennu’s northern hemisphere. The size of a small parking lot, the Nightingale site is one of the few relatively clear spots on this unexpectedly boulder-covered space rock,” NASA said then.

After landing, Osiris-Rex blasted its surface with compressed nitrogen to stir up dust and gravel for collection.

NASA said in a statement that 500-meter-wide Bennu “offers scientists a window into the early solar system as it was first taking shape billions of years ago and flinging ingredients that could have helped seed life on Earth.”

If the mission is successful, in March 2021 – the next time Bennu will be properly aligned with Earth for the most fuel-efficient return flight – Osiris-Rex will embark on its return journey.

The probe is scheduled to return to Earth on Sep. 24, 2024 in Utah’s west desert. EFE-EPA


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