NASA's far-flung OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was successful in its mission to collect a sample from asteroid Bennu, the agency said Friday – but perhaps too successful.
Using a pogo stick-like device with a container, the spacecraft on Tuesday made contact with the asteroid and collected potentially hundreds of grams of cosmic rubble, far more than the originally planned 60 grams, or 2.1 ounces. But newly released images show the container's "lid" slightly stuck open due to the overflow, allowing some sample particles to escape into space.
NASA, University of Arizona, and Lockheed Martin teams would normally have spent Saturday measuring the size of the sample. But because the spacecraft clearly obtained far more than planned and some is actively being lost, NASA's science chief said Friday he decided to bypass the procedure and begin stowing as soon as possible.
"There is so much in there that the diaphragm that was supposed keep the sample in is stuck open," Thomas Zurbuchen said during a teleconference with reporters. "We observed some of the sample pieces escaping into space. Now time is of the essence."
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If teams and the spacecraft are ready, Zurbuchen said, the 20-foot OSIRIS-REx will start the stowing process as soon as Monday, which is about two weeks earlier than planned.
"There's definitely evidence of hundreds of grams of material," said Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, the project's principal investigator. "We're concerned that the sample mass measurement planned for tomorrow would impart additional forces and actually cause us to lose mass."
"We're almost the victims of our own success here," he said.
If all goes well with the stowing process, OSIRIS-REx, now 200 million miles away from Earth, should depart the asteroid next spring. Its sample collection container is scheduled to land in Utah in September 2023.
Scientists ultimately hope to study the samples to obtain a better idea of how the solar system formed. Unusually dark and carbon-rich, Bennu is believed to harbor discoveries that could help with the understanding of life on Earth, too.
OSIRIS-REx, launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral in 2016, is NASA's first attempt at asteroid sample collection. Japan became the first country to pull off the maneuver in 2010 when its Hayabusa spacecraft successfully returned a sample from asteroid Itokawa.
If OSIRIS-REx's sample comes back safely, scientists hope to combine data from the Itokawa samples with those obtained from Bennu to magnify their findings.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: NASA: OSIRIS-REx successfully gets asteroid Bennu sample, but too much