NASA’s OSIRIS-REx secures asteroid sample after surprise leak

After a series of high-stakes maneuvers performed more than 200 million miles from Earth, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has successfully stowed its precious samples of the asteroid Bennu. The move follows a surprise leak first announced on October 23, as some of the spacecraft’s pristine space rocks slipped out of a jammed sampling mechanism and floated away into the void. The safeguarding of the sample ensures that the material—rocks and dust from the solar system’s origins—will safely make its way to Earth.



a close up of a clock: On October 22, two days after touching Bennu, engineers realized that OSIRIS-REx's Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) sampling head on was leaking precious rocks and dust. The culprit: a mylar flap designed to keep the material in the head, wedged open by larger rocks.


© Photograph by NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

On October 22, two days after touching Bennu, engineers realized that OSIRIS-REx’s Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) sampling head on was leaking precious rocks and dust. The culprit: a mylar flap designed to keep the material in the head, wedged open by larger rocks.




With the door open, a technician at Kennedy Space Center inspects the inside of the sample return capsule, circular object at right, in 2016 during testing of the door. The leaking sampling head was placed inside this capsule for its journey back to Earth.


© Photograph by Kim Shiflett, NASA

With the door open, a technician at Kennedy Space Center inspects the inside of the sample return capsule, circular object at right, in 2016 during testing of the door. The leaking sampling head was placed inside this capsule for its journey back to Earth.


The sample was secured after a tense few days following OSIRIS-REx’s October 20 touchdown on Bennu, which made the spacecraft only the third—and NASA’s first—to collect a sample from an asteroid. But OSIRIS-REx did almost too good of a job: It picked up pieces of the asteroid large enough to wedge the sample-collection device partially open.

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As soon as the team noticed the debris leak on October 22, OSIRIS-REx personnel canceled several planned maneuvers and tests to minimize any disturbances to the sample-collection device, called TAGSAM (Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism). To protect the material in the device, which will be returned to Earth in 2023, OSIRIS-REx’s controllers quickly acted to tuck the sample into a sealed capsule—a maneuver that was completed on October 28.

The successful stowing process comes as a welcome relief, as OSIRIS-REx’s cache of primordial dirt and rocks could shed light on how the planets—and maybe even life on Earth—came to be. By studying the ingredients that were present in the newborn solar system, scientists hope to unravel the 4.5 billion-year process that produced Earth and everything on it.

Just hours into the effort to safeguard the sample, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta acknowledged that the accelerated maneuver came with its own risks, but he stressed that quickly locking down the sample was the most prudent course of action.

“Once it’s in the return capsule, it’s all contained, and anything inside there is coming back to the surface of Earth,” he said on October 27.

The jammed sampling mechanism was the latest surprise thrown at OSIRIS-REx by Bennu, a world shaped like a top and not much wider than the Empire State Building. Bennu’s extremely weak gravity and treacherous, boulder-covered surface pushed the spacecraft and its team to their limits. To descend to the asteroid’s surface, the spacecraft needed to switch to backup navigation software mid-mission, and engineers had to model even the slightest

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NASA OSIRIS-REX Mission Springs Leak After Touching Asteroid

NASA’s effort to grab a piece of an asteroid on Tuesday may have worked a little too well. The spacecraft, OSIRIS-REX, grabbed so much rock and dirt that some of the material is now leaking back into space.

The operation some 200 million miles from Earth on the other side of the sun was “almost too successful,” Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator of the mission, said during a telephone news conference on Friday. NASA officials worried that without careful effort to secure its samples in the days ahead, the mission could lose much of the scientific payload it traveled for years across the solar system to gather.

A few rocks wedged in the robotic probe’s collection mechanism prevented a flap from fully closing. In images taken by the spacecraft, scientists could see bits of asteroid coming out. Dr. Lauretta estimated that each image showed about 5 to 10 grams — up to about a third of an ounce — of material floating around the collector. That is a significant loss as the mission’s aim is to bring back at least 60 grams of asteroid dirt and rocks.

“You’ve got to remember the entire system is in microgravity,” Dr. Lauretta said. The particles move as if in a fluid, “and particles are kind of diffusing out,” he said.

However, the visual evidence suggests that the spacecraft gathered much more than 60 grams. Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for science, said NASA has decided to start preparations for stowing the sample. “Time is of the essence,” he said.

If the collection attempt had not succeeded, OSIRIS-REX could have made two more attempts.

Mission managers also decided to call off two maneuvers. One, scheduled for Friday, was to slow down the spacecraft and to allow it to re-enter orbit around the asteroid Bennu, which is only about 1,600 feet in diameter. Instead, it continues to drift away at a speed of less than one mile per hour.

The second one was to spin the spacecraft around on Saturday to measure how much is trapped inside the collection mechanism. But that would shake out more material. “So that is not a prudent path to go down,” Dr. Lauretta said.

The collection of a sample was the key objective of the mission whose full name is Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer. Asteroids are primitive 4.5 billion-year-old leftovers from the earliest days of the solar system. Scientists on Earth using sophisticated instruments would be able to study the Bennu material in much more detail than any instruments on the spacecraft could.

On Tuesday, the spacecraft’s collection mechanism touched the asteroid Bennu at a leisurely pace of about 1.5 inches a second. The sampling mechanism, which resembles an automobile air filter, had been designed to work on a wide variety of surfaces ranging from completely rigid — “Like running into a slab of concrete,” Dr. Lauretta said — to something much more porous.

That part of Bennu turned out to be on the softer

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Astronauts Plug Leak On The International Space Station With The Help Of Floating Tea Leaves

A worsening leak on the International Space Station (ISS) has been plugged thanks to an unusual method – using floating tea leaves to work out where it was.

Since September 2019, a small amount of air as been leaking from the ISS at a rate of 0.6 pounds of air per day – not much, but cause for some concern. However, by August 2020 the problem had increased five-fold, with the loss rate rising to 3.1 pounds per day.

Over the next several weeks, the crew began searching for the leak. This included closing hatches to isolate the leak, along with an ultrasonic leak detector. Ultimately the location of the leak was narrowed down to the Zvezda module, the location of Russia’s crew quarters on the station.

Finding the actual leak itself – which NASA noted posed “no immediate danger to the crew” – proved more difficult. But last week, the Russian space agency – Rocosmos – said the crew had successfully used floating tea leaves to work out where it was and plugged it, although the cause of the small hole still seems to be unknown.

“We believe that we have really identified the probable leakage area,” said Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin, one of the crew of six on the ISS, reported the Russian news agency TASS. “We have distributed a tea bag before closing the transfer chamber.”

Ivanishin added: “We have several photos and videos of the direction of the tea bag’s flight or where it intended to fly and this precisely shows the direction the air is blowing from the possible air leak.”

The crew have now put tape over the crack, which will temporarily prevent a further loss of air. The plan now is to find a more permanent solution to seal the leak.

This could include using equipment brought up by the most recent Soyuz launch on October 14, with NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov on board.

“ISS crew sealed the airleak using temporary means available at the station,” Roscosmos said in a short statement on Twitter.

“Currently, [the] Chief Operating Control Group together with the [ISS] crew is working out a program of operations to permanently seal the leak location.”

This is not the first time a leak has been reported on the ISS. Back in 2018, a small hole was found in one of the Soyuz spacecraft docked with the space station, potentially due to human error on the ground. Russia later said that, while the cause of the leak had been found, it would not reveal what happened.

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