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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 5 March 2021

Nasa saves asteroid sample collection mission after pieces leak away into space

Samples of asteroid Bennu could provide insights into how our universe formed 4.5 billion years ago

An artist's impression of Nasa’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to collect debris from its surface. AFP
An artist's impression of Nasa’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft descending towards asteroid Bennu to collect debris from its surface. AFP

A Nasa spacecraft that was leaking asteroid samples it had collected in a landmark mission has managed to stow away the remaining pieces and will bring them back to Earth by 2023.

The Osiris-Rex spacecraft landed on asteroid Bennu on October 21 to collect samples in a mission to help scientists gain insights on how the solar system was created 4.5 billion years ago.

However, a large rock was preventing the container holding the samples to close properly, causing some dust and rock samples to escape into space.

To save the mission, Nasa instructed the return capsule to close ahead of time and store away more than 60 grams of samples.

“Given the complexity of the process to place the sample collector head onto the capture ring, we expected that it would take a few attempts to get it in the perfect position,” said Rich Burns, Osiris-Rex’s project manager.

“Fortunately, the head was captured on the first try, which allowed us to expeditiously execute the stow procedure.”

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The van-sized spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral on 2016 to study the asteroid. Osiris-Rex had been chasing the space rock for two years before making a brief landing at a site scientists call ‘Nightingale’.

Bennu was first discovered in 1999 and is said to be formed from materials that date back billions of years.

“Together a team comprising industry, academia and international partners, and a talented and diverse team of Nasa employees with all types of expertise, has put us on course to vastly increase our collection on Earth of samples from space,” said Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“Samples like this are going to transform what we know about our universe and ourselves, which is at the base of all Nasa’s endeavours.”

The stowage process was originally scheduled to begin in early November, but was expedited after mission control saw the samples were overflowing in the spacecraft’s collector.

On October 28, the container holding the samples was secured inside the return capsule and no more leakages are expected.

The next phase of the mission is the Earth return cruise, with a departure window opening in March 2021.

Nasa is targeting September 24, 2023, for the capsule to be released towards Earth by the spacecraft.

This is Nasa's first asteroid sample-return mission.

Japan's space agency Jaxa is hoping to bring back samples its Hayabusa-2 mission collected from asteroid Ryugu by December 6.

It follows their Hayabusa-1 mission that returned samples in 2010 from the 25143 Itokawa asteroid.

Studies suggest ancient life on Mars may have existed

Updated: November 1, 2020 01:32 PM

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