Finally, everything went well. The sample collected from asteroid 101955 Bennu by the Osiris-Rexest probe is safe inside the spacecraft and en route to Earth. This was a tense week for those in charge of the mission, since NASA’s plan worked so well that more than the 60 grams of material originally planned were collected – with this, smaller pieces of rock were seen escaping the spacecraft.
Last Wednesday (28), the mission team sent commands to Osiris-Rex, instructing it to close the capsule. The move was successful and the sample landed in the Utah desert in September 2023 – if all goes well.
There were two days working around the clock to carry out the procedure, which required continuous supervision by the team. For the spacecraft to proceed with each step in the storage sequence, the team had to evaluate the images and telemetry from the previous step to confirm that everything went well and the probe was ready to continue.
The problem that Osiris-Rex is currently more than 330 million kilometers from Earth, this required the team to work with a delay of more than 18 minutes for the signals to travel in each direction. Technicians still had to continually assess the alignment of the spacecraft’s mechanical arm to ensure the collector was being placed correctly.
I’ve officially closed the Sample Return Capsule! The sample of Bennu is sealed inside and ready for our voyage back to Earth. The SRC will touch down in the Utah desert on Sep. 24, 2023. Thanks, everyone, for being a part of my journey #ToBennuAndBack pic.twitter.com/z75ITNiGBf
– NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (@OSIRISREx) October 29, 2020
The transmitted images also helped to observe if any material escaped from the capsule – which could hinder the process, if the rocks were left in the gears. Some particles escaped during the procedure, but NASA is confident that a large amount of material remained inside the container.
“Given the complexity of the process of placing the sample collector’s head on the capture ring, we hoped that some attempts would be needed to place it in the perfect position,” says Rich Burns, Osiris-Rex project manager at Goddard Space Flight Center. “Fortunately, the capsule was captured on the first attempt, which allowed us to quickly perform the recall procedure,” he adds.
As insurance died of old age, the team took the time to do a “return check”. This sequence of commands caused the probe arm to pull the tip of the collector, ensuring that the locks were well attached. With everything in place, NASA technicians completed the final step of the sample storage process: closing the capsule inside Osiris-Rex.
With this step surpassed ahead of time (it was originally scheduled to start in early November), NASA is now focusing on preparing the spacecraft for the return trip to Earth. The departure window opens in March 2021 for Osiris-Rex to begin its journey home, and the spacecraft aims to deliver the capsule with the sample on September 24, 2023.
Nasa Astronomy Asteroid space probe OSIRIS-REx Science & Space space exploration