The mission team received images sent from the spacecraft last Thursday, which revealed that the sampling head was full of surface material – so much so that a fin was wedged out of stones, allowing particles to escape into space.
The team canceled scheduled maneuvers for the spacecraft that would have been used to estimate the mass of the sample they collected. But researchers are convinced that the spacecraft was collected well above the requirement of sending 2 ounces or 60 grams.
Due to the success of the sample collection, the team worked over the weekend to speed up preparations for the sample storage, which was originally scheduled for November 2nd.
“The abundance of material we collected from Bennu allowed us to expedite our decision to save,” said Dante Lauretta, lead researcher at OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The team is now working around the clock to speed up the storage schedule so that we can protect as much of this material as possible from returning to Earth.”
The collection head will be stored in the spacecraft’s return capsule to protect material collected by the spacecraft during the brief and historic touchdown of about 6 seconds in Bennu last week.
This is NASA’s first mission to land and collect a sample from an asteroid and will return to Earth in September 2023. .
The asteroid and spacecraft are more than 200 million miles from Earth. This creates a one-way, 18.5-minute communication delay between OSIRIS-REx and its Earth mission team.
The spacecraft operated autonomously during the collection event due to this delay last week. But stacking is a different story.
Handle with care
Each sample storage step requires supervision and commands sent by the team. Basically, every time the spacecraft completes a step, it sends back data and images to the team. Once received, the researchers evaluate the progress of OSIRIS-REx and send another command.
This will ensure that the collection head is placed in the capsule with proper care.
This stacking process will take several days from the group assessment, but this should result in the sample being stored and sealed securely so that it can return to Earth.
To help with this process, team members will rely on a new imaging sequence to help them observe material leaking from the collection head. They can also use it to make sure that the escaping particles do not interfere with storage.
The spacecraft will not leave for Earth until March 2021, when the asteroid aligns with Earth to offer a more efficient journey home.
“I’m proud of the amazing work and success of the OSIRIS-REx team at this point,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Deputy Managing Director of NASA’s Mission Science Division.
“This mission is able to return a historic and substantial asteroid specimen to Earth, and they have done all the right things, in a faster timeframe, to protect this precious cargo.”