NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft did its job somewhat too effectively on Tuesday, when it tried to scoop up a handful of rocks from an asteroid named Bennu greater than 200 million miles from Earth. The automobile really grabbed an excessive amount of materials with its robotic arm, jamming the lid on the finish of the arm open — and letting a part of the asteroid pattern escape out into area.
“We had been virtually a sufferer of our personal success right here,” mentioned Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission on the College of Arizona, in a press convention.
OSIRIS-REx’s mission is to carry a pattern of asteroid materials again to Earth in order that scientists can examine the rocks in a lab. However as a result of OSIRIS-REx bit off greater than it may chew, its mission staff is racing to stow the pattern contained in the spacecraft’s stomach, so the automobile doesn’t lose an excessive amount of materials to the void. “Time is of the essence, and no, we received’t sleep,” mentioned Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s affiliate administrator for science, in a press convention.
The excellent news is that OSIRIS-REx appears to have grabbed an plentiful and numerous group of asteroid rocks. The staff’s objective was to snag as much as 60 grams (2.1 ounces) of rocks from Bennu’s floor, and pictures from the spacecraft present that OSIRIS-REx probably grabbed as much as 400 grams (14.1 ounces) of fabric, in keeping with the mission staff. The pattern contains rocks that vary in dimension, and a few are so huge that they prevented the spacecraft from sealing the pattern shut.
The engineers are assured that the rocks aren’t escaping too shortly, so the spacecraft ought to have the ability to retailer a very good quantity contained in the spacecraft earlier than an excessive amount of is depleted. They suppose that they misplaced between 1 to 10 grams of fabric yesterday, after transferring the robotic arm round. Nonetheless, NASA doesn’t plan to stow the pattern inside OSIRIS-REx till Monday. The mission staff has to take time to determine all of the instructions for the spacecraft and make sure that this course of will nonetheless work with rocks spilling out into area. It’s unclear how a lot of the pattern will probably be misplaced as they wait.
There’s one other complication, too: simply transferring the robotic arm round with the pattern inside causes rocks to flee outward, so stowing the supplies dangers shedding extra pebbles. The engineers suppose they could lose as much as 10 extra grams of rocks simply by stowing the pattern contained in the spacecraft. However it’s higher to stow one thing than to attend for every part to leak out.
To seize the pattern from Bennu, OSIRIS-REx is supplied with a robotic arm that has a cylindrical pattern collector on the finish. On Tuesday afternoon, OSIRIS-REx slowly approached Bennu and gently tapped its floor with the collector. For the time being of contact, the collector puffed out a bunch of nitrogen gasoline, shaking up all of the rocks and pebbles on the asteroid’s floor. A few of these rocks shot up contained in the collector, whereas others danced and twirled out into area.
The OSIRIS-REx staff couldn’t inform straight away if it had a pattern or not, as they needed to wait to get photographs from the spacecraft. However they quickly knew that they had an issue after they lastly received an up-close image of the pattern collector. The photographs present that a part of the lid is jammed open by a centimeter; tiny items of asteroid may be seen hovering across the arm.
If the pattern seize had gone extra easily, NASA would have waited a short while longer to stow the fabric inside OSIRIS-REx. In reality, the mission staff had deliberate to do a spin maneuver on Saturday with the spacecraft, twirling the automobile up with its robotic arm outstretched. This is able to have helped the staff determine simply how a lot materials the spacecraft had collected. The engineers may measure the spacecraft’s inertia, evaluating it to a time earlier than when the spacecraft didn’t have a pattern in its arm. However the spin is successfully canceled. “It might danger lack of materials so that isn’t a prudent path to go down,” Lauretta mentioned.
Which means the OSIRIS-REx staff received’t really know the way a lot pattern is within the spacecraft’s stomach because the automobile returns again to Earth. “I feel we’re going to have to attend until we get residence to know exactly how a lot we now have and that, as you possibly can think about — that’s arduous,” Lauretta mentioned. “We had been trying ahead to a pattern mass measurement.” So it’s attainable that the entire pattern may fall out earlier than Monday, and we wouldn’t really know till the spacecraft comes again to our planet.
The OSIRIS-REx staff additionally doesn’t plan to seize one other pattern from Bennu, so that is it. That’s why engineers are working shortly to retailer this pattern on Monday. “I’m extremely assured that it was profitable — that we now have greater than the 60 grams of fabric that we promised Thomas and the company that we might ship,” Lauretta mentioned, including, “crucial factor is to get the pattern safely stowed and decrease any extra loss.”