NASA successfully scoops up a sample from asteroid Bennu

NASA has succeeded in collecting a sample from an asteroid for the first time, scooping up rocks and dust from asteroid Bennu using its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully touched down on asteroid Bennu on Tuesday, October 20, marking the first time that NASA has touched an asteroid in this manner. During the touchdown, the spacecraft fired a burst of nitrogen gas down toward the asteroid in order to throw up soil and small rocks which were to be collected by the probe’s Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head. The aim was to collect at least 2 ounces (60 grams) to sample.

The NASA team had to wait a few days to learn if this sample collection had been successful. And now the news has come in, and it looks good — at least 2 ounces have been scooped up.

There’s a slight challenge though. When looking at images of the spacecraft, the OSIRIS-REx team noticed that some of the sample particles seem to be escaping from the sample collector into space. Small amounts of material are passing through a gap in the mylar flap which acts as the collector’s lid, as it is wedged open by larger rocks.

“We are working to keep up with our own success here, and my job is to safely return as large a sample of Bennu as possible,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said in a statement. “The loss of mass is of concern to me, so I’m strongly encouraging the team to stow this precious sample as quickly as possible.”

The team will now work to secure the sample and try not to jiggle the spacecraft any more than necessary to avoid losing any more. The next phase is for the sample to be stowed in the Sample Return Capsule, which can keep any loose material in place while it is brought back to Earth for study.

“Bennu continues to surprise us with great science and also throwing a few curveballs,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said in the statement. “And although we may have to move more quickly to stow the sample, it’s not a bad problem to have. We are so excited to see what appears to be an abundant sample that will inspire science for decades beyond this historic moment.”

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