Confident that the spacecraft OSIRIS-REx captured a good-sized sample from the surface of an asteroid, the team working on the NASA project will start the process of stowing the material in a capsule set to return to Earth in 2023.
Starting Tuesday, scientists and engineers on the Lockheed Martin Space campus in Jefferson County will work to release and stow the ring-shaped head at the end of a robotic arm. The capsule, containing NASA’s first-ever sample of material from an asteroid, is expected to land in a Utah desert.
“This team is prepared to go around the clock until we can get all those steps completed. We believe that the earliest that things will be complete will be late on Wednesday,” said Sandra Freund, the OSIRIS-REx mission operations manager for Lockheed Martin.
The mission is led by the University of Arizona and is part of NASA’s ongoing quest to learn more about the origins of the solar system and Earth. The spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was launched in September 2016 by Centennial-based United Launch Alliance from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
In 2018, the spacecraft reached the asteroid Bennu, which is 200 million miles from Earth, and started taking images and mapping Bennu’s geology and other properties. Freund said the quick touchdown Oct. 20 on the surface to get samples of regolith, dirt-like material, was “pretty much picture perfect.”
The goal was to use the craft’s robotic arm, called Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM, to collect at least 60 grams, or 2.1 ounces, of regolith. Photos showed that TAGSAM likely collected much more than that, but also revealed that larger particles got wedged in a flap, creating a couple of gaps where some of the material drifted out.
As a result, Freund said it was decided to stow the sample container in the capsule about a week earlier than planned. The team doesn’t know exactly how much material was collected because it is skipping a spin maneuver that would help determine the mass of the sample. Scientists don’t want to risk losing more of the particles in space.
“We’re confident that we have over 60 grams, which is the mission’s requirement. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re going to have to wait until we’re back on Earth to know exactly how much we have,” Freund said.
To collect the regolith, the TAGSAM’s arm extended and the device blew compressed nitrogen gas to stir up the dirt and collect the material in a filter in the ring-shaped canister. The asteroid, a little over the size of the Empire State Building in diameter, is more than 4.5 billion years old, according to NASA.
“Bennu itself is a piece of the early solar system that formed the Earth, and we ourselves are a product of the Earth,” said Beau Bierhaus, Lockheed Martin’s lead scientist on TAGSAM. “By virtue of learning about Bennu and learning about Jupiter or learning about Mars, we’re not only learning about those other destinations, we’re learning how they have affected Earth and how they have contributed to the evolution of Earth in the solar system.”
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