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OSIRIS-REx Expedites Sample Stowage After Collecting Too Much Asteroid Dirt

Captured on Oct. 22, this series of three images shows that the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is full of rocks and dust collected from asteroid Bennu. The image series also shows that some of these particles are slowly escaping the sampler head. Photo: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

A spacecraft collecting dirt from an ancient asteroid will conduct a mission maneuver a week early. OSIRIS-REx collected more dirt from the asteroid Bennu than expected.

Last week, the spacecraft dipped close to the asteroid to suck up the dirt. When it returned images of the sample collection device, managers noticed bits of the dirt flying out — meaning it may have collected more than expected.

The team has decided to stow the sample collection head and prepare it for its trip back to Earth. The plan was to collect up to 4 pounds of dirt from the surface of the asteroid Bennu.

“The abundance of material we collected from Bennu made it possible to expedite our decision to stow,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The team is now working around the clock to accelerate the stowage timeline, so that we can protect as much of this material as possible for return to Earth.”

Communicating with the spacecraft takes about 37 minutes round trip. Unlike other parts of the mission which are automated, OSIRIS-REx will check in with the team here on Earth each step of the way, meaning it could take days to upload the correct commands and verify the steps to secure the sample.

“I’m proud of the OSIRIS-REx team’s amazing work and success to this point,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen. “This mission is well positioned to return a historic and substantial sample of an asteroid to Earth, and they’ve been doing all the right things, on an expedited timetable, to protect that precious cargo.”

The sample returns to Earth in 2023. The mission — which is searching for early signs of life in the solar system — launched from Cape Canaveral back in 2016.

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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Are We There Yet?' Host

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration. Brendan is a native Floridian, born and raised in Broward County. He moved to ... Read Full Bio »