NASA Expedites Stowing Of Asteroid Samples Leaking From Spacecraft


  • Asteroid samples captured by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft appear to be leaking
  • NASA is now expediting the stowage process to protect the samples
  • Instead of Nov. 2, the process will be performed on Tuesday

NASA’s Touch-And-Go (TAG) event was so successful that the spacecraft appeared to be “overflowing” with asteroid samples. To protect the precious samples, the agency decided to expedite the mission and stow the samples a week ahead of schedule.

It was just days after the historic Oct. 22 event when NASA confirmed that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft met its goal of collecting at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of sample from asteroid Bennu, collecting “more than enough” of the material. However, the mission was so successful that the asteroid particles appeared to be “leaking” from the spacecraft.

Images of the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) revealed that the collected particles were actually slowly escaping from the spacecraft, likely because larger particles may have kept TAGSAM’s mylar flap open, thereby allowing the smaller particles to escape.

Originally, the plan was to stow the sample in the spacecraft’s Sample Return Capsule (SRC) on Nov. 2. But because the samples are slowly leaking from the spacecraft, NASA said in a news release that the procedure will be expedited and performed starting Tuesday to prevent losing more of the samples.

OSIRIS-REx will perform the task in stages instead of autonomously, with each stage being closely monitored by the mission team, NASA explained. For each step, the team will send the commands for the spacecraft to follow, after which it will be the spacecraft’s turn to send back data and images to the team.

As the agency explained in the news release, each step will likely take about 37 minutes of communications since one way signals take 18.5 minutes to travel from the Earth to the spacecraft and vice versa.

All in all, the entire stowage process could take several days.

“One week ahead of schedule [and] exceeding all expectations, our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is ready to stow its samples collected from asteroid Bennu!” NASA said in a tweet.

The goal is to protect as much of the asteroid Bennu samples as possible. Once safely stowed, the samples will then be ready for the journey back to Earth, where OSIRIS-REx is expected to arrive by 2023.

“The abundance of material we collected from Bennu made it possible to expedite our decision to stow,” OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Dante Lauretta, said in the NASA news release. “The team is now working around the clock to accelerate the stowage timeline, so that we can protect as much of this material as possible for return to Earth.”

This NASA frame grab from a gif series captured by Osiris-Rex's camera on October 22, 2020 shows the sampler head on the spacecraft full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid Bennu This NASA frame grab from a gif series captured by Osiris-Rex’s camera on October 22, 2020 shows the sampler head on the spacecraft full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid Bennu Photo: NASA / Handout

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Bennu Asteroid Particles Leaking From NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft


  • About 5 to 10 grams of Bennu’s surface particle samples are diffusing out in space
  • Particles escape slowly from flaps of the spacecraft’s Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism
  • The mission team remains positive to bring home abundant samples for future studies 

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team’s mission to collect samples from asteroid Bennu was successful so much so that particles are diffusing out from the spacecraft. The mission team was tasked to collect at least 2 ounces or 60 grams of the Bennu’s surface material. 

Upon review of the images they obtained as they performed the collection, the team noticed that the sample collector head of the  OSIRIS-REx appeared to be full. However, the images reveal that the particles are somewhat escaping slowly from the part of the spacecraft called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism or TAGSAM.

The team suspected that they collected abundant sample particles from Bennu that excess materials are escaping through small flaps of the TAGSAM’s lid. Larger rock particles may have wedged open the lid, the team said. 

This NASA frame grab from a gif series captured by Osiris-Rex's camera on October 22, 2020 shows the sampler head on the spacecraft full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid Bennu This NASA frame grab from a gif series captured by Osiris-Rex’s camera on October 22, 2020 shows the sampler head on the spacecraft full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid Bennu Photo: NASA / Handout

“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 press release. Lauretta leads the mission and is tasked with the mission’s data processing. 

“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,” Lauretta added. 

By estimates, the team is losing between 5 to 10 grams of Bennu’s surface particle samples. The problem is that they won’t know the actual amount of what they collected until NASA’s OSIRIS-REx lands back home in 2023.  

Lauretta explained that they don’t have the capability to close the flaps through which the particles are escaping. At the same time, the team isn’t sure as well how big are the rocks that keep the flaps open.  There is also no way of knowing what sizes of particles can escape through the opened flaps. 

According to CNN, the problem with particles escaping the TAGSAM was not anticipated during the mission’s dry-runs. And, although trials include having large rocks during the collection, the team didn’t calculate the depth through which they should thrust the collector head into Bennu.

Nevertheless, the team remains optimistic about the samples they have.   They believe they can bring home enough samples for future studies. 

“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,” Lauretta said as quoted by CNN. 

Scientists celebrate as NASA's robotic spacecraft Osiris-Rex briefly touches down on asteroid Bennu to collect samples. "The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do," says Dante Lauretta from University of Arizona. Scientists celebrate as

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NASA collected a sample from asteroid Bennu, but some of it is leaking into space

The historic collection of a sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Tuesday was almost too successful.

a clock on the side: The spacecraft's sample head is full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid Bennu. But some of the particles are slowly escaping through small gaps.

The spacecraft’s sample head is full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid Bennu. But some of the particles are slowly escaping through small gaps.

Some of the sample is leaking into space, according to Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson during a NASA press conference Friday.


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“The big concern now is that particles are escaping because we’re almost a victim of our own success,” he said. “Large particles left the flap open. Particles are diffusing out into space. They aren’t moving fast, but nonetheless, it’s valuable scientific material.”

The mission team analyzed images Thursday taken of the collector head of the spacecraft that showed that a substantial sample was collected — but there is so much material in the head that the flap designed to keep the sample inside is jammed.

This is allowing particles to escape into space. The mission team is changing the course of the events planned for the spacecraft this weekend and planning to stow the sample as quickly as possible so little material is lost. The researchers estimated that it’s continually losing between 5 to 10 grams of material. This flaky material floats in what resembles a cloud of particles around the head.

But the team isn’t sure of the exact loss rate because it’s not steady.

The mission was required to collect at least 2 ounces, or 60 grams, of the asteroid’s surface material. Based on the images they analyzed, the researchers are confident that the collector head on the end of the spacecraft’s robotic arm actually captured 400 grams of material. And that’s only what’s visible to them through the perspective of the camera.

Video: See NASA spacecraft successfully land on an asteroid (CNN)

See NASA spacecraft successfully land on an asteroid



But particles are escaping through small gaps where a Mylar flap, or lid, is being held open by at least a centimeter by large rocks. And the activities planned for the spacecraft this weekend could cause more sample loss due to movement.

Previously, OSIRIS-Rex was expected to conduct a braking burn on Friday and a measurement of the sample’s mass on Saturday. Although this means the team won’t know the true mass of the sample until it returns to Earth in 2023, the mission team is confident that it will have a sufficient sample.

“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,” Lauretta said. “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 go through another evaluation process this weekend to ensure that the sample head could be stowed in the sample return capsule

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NASA Probe Leaking Asteroid Samples After Hearty Collection | Top News

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Reuters) – The U.S. probe that collected a sample from an asteroid earlier this week retrieved so much material that a rock is wedged the container door, allowing rocks to spill back out into space, NASA officials said on Friday.

The robotic arm of the probe, OSIRIS-REx, on Tuesday night kicked up a debris cloud of rocks on Bennu, a skyscraper-sized asteroid some 200 million miles (320 million km) from Earth and trapped the material in a collection device for the return to Earth.

But images of the spacecraft’s collection head beamed back to ground control revealed it had caught more material than scientists anticipated and was spewing an excess of flaky asteroid rocks into space.

The leakage had the OSIRIS-REx mission team scrambling to stow the collection device to prevent additional spillage.”Time is of the essence,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told reporters. Zurbuchen said mission teams will skip their chance to measure how much material they collected as originally planned and proceed to the stow phase, a fragile process of tucking the sample collection container in a safe position within the spacecraft without jostling out more valuable material.NASA will not know how much material it collected until the sample capsule returns in 2023. The troubleshooting also led mission leaders to forgo any more chances of redoing a collection attempt and instead commit to begin the spacecraft’s return to Earth next March. “Quite honestly, we could not have performed a better collection experiment,” OSIRIS-REx principle investigator Dante Lauretta told reporters, affirming a hearty sample size.

But with the door lodged open by a rock and the “concerning” images of sample spillage, “we’re almost the victim of our own success here,” he added. The roughly $800 million, minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, launched in 2016 to grab and return the first U.S. sample of pristine asteroid materials. Japan is the only other country to have accomplished such a feat.Asteroids are among the leftover debris from the solar system’s formation some 4.5 billion years ago. A sample could hold clues to the origins of life on Earth, scientists say.

(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and William Mallard)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.

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Asteroid samples leaking from OSIRIS-REx

WASHINGTON — NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected so much material from the surface of the asteroid Bennu that the lid of its sampling head is jammed open, causing material to leak out and changing the agency’s plans for the mission.

At a media briefing called by NASA on short notice Oct. 23, three days after the spacecraft touched down on the asteroid, officials said that images taken of the head of the sampling device, called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), showed material leaking out of the container from a gap in a Mylar diaphragm that is supposed to seal the bottom of the head.

“I am highly confident that TAGSAM was success, that it collected abundant mass: definitely evidence of hundreds of grams of material, and possibly more,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona. “My big concern now is that the particles are escaping because we were almost a victim of our own success.”

Those images show a cloud of particles outside of the TAGSAM, floating away from it at about one centimeter per second. He estimated that the material visible for those images had a mass of 5 to 10 grams. He added it is not likely a “steady state” mass loss since the head was moving around when those pictures were taken, helping particles escape through the gap in the diaphragm. Star tracker cameras on the spacecraft, which also detected the particles, saw much less after the head was “parked” on the side of the spacecraft.

The concern that more material might leak out of the sample head, though, has prompted NASA to change plans for the mission. Lauretta said that a maneuver planned for the weekend, where the spacecraft would be slowly spun up to measure the change in its moment of inertia and thus the mass of the sample material, has been canceled. Instead, planning is underway to stow the samples in a canister inside the spacecraft, where they will be sealed for return to Earth.

“Time is of the essence,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “I’ve made the decision to forego the sample mass measurement and ask the team to prepare immediately, and do the analysis to see if we’re ready, to stow.”

That stow maneuver was expected in early November, assuming that the sample collection effort did meet the goal of at least 60 grams of material. With it now clear that the spacecraft sampled far more, and with the risk of losing more material, that stowing process will begin as soon as Oct. 27, after finalizing procedures and securing time on the Deep Space Network.

Lauretta said it’s possible that they may lose tens of grams of additional material when stowing the sample. There is also a risk that material protruding from the bottom of the TAGSAM baseplate could interfere with the stowing process, but he said that the images showed none of the material there appeared to be big enough to pose a

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NASA’s Osiris-Rex asteroid sample is leaking into space

  • NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft briefly landed on an asteroid called Bennu on Tuesday to collect samples of its rock.
  • But now a valve on the probe’s sample-collecting arm won’t close, and the bits of asteroid it grabbed are floating away.
  • The team is frantically trying to store the asteroid dust in a safer place before they lose much more. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission successfully scooped up a sample of fine dust and grit from an asteroid called Bennu on Tuesday. It was the first time NASA had ever gathered a sample from an asteroid.

But the spacecraft’s sample-collecting arm seems to have gathered so much asteroid material in that maneuver that part of the valve designed to keep the sample contained won’t close. Now, bits are falling out.

“There’s so much in there that the diaphragm that is supposed to keep the sample in is open,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said in a briefing on Friday.

Now the Osiris-Rex team has to figure out how to hold onto the rest of the material the probe has gathered. So instead of weighing the sample, the planned next step of the process, they’re opting to stow the sample immediately in the spacecraft’s built-in Sample Return Capsule.

That should “preserve and prevent any future mass loss,” Dante Lauretta, the Osiris-Rex mission lead, said at the Friday briefing.

“We were almost a victim of our own success here,” Lauretta added.

A ‘touch-and-go’ mission

On Tuesday, Osiris-Rex slowly descended about 3,280 feet (1 kilometer) and avoided a hazardous rock field in order to stick its difficult landing on Bennu’s surface. It successfully maneuvered past a two-story boulder that mission controllers call “Mount Doom,” reaching Bennu’s surface with its sample-collection arm stretched down properly.

Osiris-Rex had twice rehearsed this descent, practicing “basically everything except for the final two minutes,” according to Mike Moreau, a project manager.

Once on Bennu, Osiris-Rex’s arm shot nitrogen gas out of a bottle to stir up the fine dust, called regolith, beneath it. In the disturbance, researchers estimate, hundreds of grams of material were collected in the tool at the end of the arm. 

osiris rex side by side skitch

Side-by-side images depict Osiris-Rex’s sample-collecting arm shortly before and shortly after it scraped the surface of Bennu.

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Then approximately six seconds after touchdown, Osiris-Rex fired its thrusters to push itself away from Bennu once again.

But once the probe was safely back in Bennu’s orbit, mission controllers observed material falling out of its sample-collecting arm. So far, it has already lost between 5 and 10 grams of material (NASA needs 60 grams for a minimum sample).

“I was immediately concerned because this is loss of sample, and loss of sample mass,” Lauretta said. 

It’s possible that Osiris-Rex could lose all of its sample if the team doesn’t act quickly enough.

osiris rex gif particles falling out

A series of three images taken October 22, 2020 shows that the sampler head on NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft is full of rocks

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