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Leaks will not keep UArizona from returning asteroid sample

Osiris Rex collected many times more than its goal
OSIRIS-REx probe sends back first image of asteroid Bennu
Posted at 3:09 PM, Oct 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-29 23:03:04-04

TUCSON, Ariz. - The University of Arizona is sharing good news about the Osiris Rex mission they helped champion and develop.

In mid-October the spacecraft gathered a sample of an asteroid 200,000,000 miles away from Earth.

Despite worries the spacecraft might lose the sample it collected, mission scientists confirmed Thursday the sample is safe and that the spacecraft collected a sample many times larger than the mission required.

Osiris Rex survived some close calls.

When the asteroid Bennu turned out to be much rockier than expected, controllers programmed it to guide itself past huge boulders into a spot smaller than a couple of parking spots.

Once it made the sample grab it was able to vacuum up plenty of material. A little too much really. Rocks kept the collection head from closing all the way.

University of Arizona planetary scientist and Osiris Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta saw material the team worked so hard to collect leaking into space.

“And, of course, I was concerned about that because every one of those particles is scientifically valuable.”

Scientifically valuable because researchers believe asteroid material reflects unaltered building blocks of the early solar system, that may offer clues about early life.

Flight controllers held the spacecraft steady to avoid shaking out the asteroid dust. To stop the leakage, they moved up a delicate maneuver.

They eased the collector into the sealed chamber designed to bring it safely to Earth. The manipulator arm tugged on the collector to make sure it’s locked in, and the cover locked down.

The leakage prevented a spin maneuver designed to help weigh the sample but scientists still think they have more than two pounds, (about one kilogram). That sample is more than 16 times the 60 grams required to call the collection a success.

Lauretta says more material allows experiments they didn’t think they’d be able to do like looking for certain biological building blocks.

“In the organic chemistry, a particular class of compounds called sugars are something we're very interested in because they do play a central role in modern biomolecules, they're expected to be present at very low abundances requiring several grams of sample to extract them from. And we thought that would not be feasible, with the 15 gram allocation (UA’s original share of the sample), but something that does open up with a larger mass available for analysis.”

But scientists will have to be patient. The sample won’t make it to Earth for about another three years.

Lauretta said “And of course the science team is gleefully working on the sample analysis plan, thinking about this massive asteroid regolith sample that we're about to bring home, and all of the phenomenal science that we're going to learn by studying the diversity of material that we believe that we collected.”