Scientists announced the news three days after the Osiris-Rex spacecraft briefly launched NASA’s asteroid Pennu, the first such mission.
Dante Loretta of the University of Arizona collected more material than he expected to return to Earth 200 million miles away on Tuesday – hundreds of grams. The sample container at the end of the robot arm penetrated the asteroid very deeply and with such force, however, the rocks were absorbed and the wedge formed around the edge of the lid.
Scientists estimate that 19 inches (48 cm) of pressure was applied to the rough, crumbling, black surface.
“We are the victim of our own success here,” Loretta said at an urgently organized press conference.
Loretta said air traffic controllers can do nothing to remove obstacles and prevent more bits of pennies from escaping, except that the samples will soon be available in their return capsule.
So, early Tuesday, the flight crew was scrambling to place the sample container in the capsule – much sooner than originally planned – a long journey home.
“Time is of the essence,” said Thomas Surbuchen, head of NASA’s scientific missions.
This is NASA’s first asteroid model-return mission. Pennu was chosen because its carbon-rich material is believed to hold the protected building blocks of our solar system. Obtaining fragments from this cosmic time capsule will help scientists better understand how the planets formed billions of years ago and how life formed on Earth.
Scientists were stunned – and then stunned – by the successful touchdown on the penniless two days ago from Osiris-Rex on Thursday.
Asteroid particles are seen orbiting the spacecraft as it retreats from the pen. According to Loretta, the situation appeared to be stable, once the robot arm was locked. But could not know exactly how much was already lost.
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Regardless of what is on board, Osiris-Rex will exit near the asteroid in March – an early departure that will give Earth and Pennu relative locations. Seven years after the spacecraft departed from Cape Canaveral, the models will not return until 2023.
The Osiris-Rex will continue to move away from the pen, and will not circle it again as it waits for a scheduled departure.
Due to the sudden turn of events, scientists do not know how long the sample capsule will hold until it returns to Earth. They initially planned to rotate the spacecraft to measure the contents, but that maneuver was canceled because it might dump more debris.
“I think we’ll have to wait until we get home to find out how much we have,” Loretta told reporters. “As you can imagine, it’s hard. … But the good news is, we’ll see a lot of things.”
Meanwhile, Japan is taking its second batch of samples from another asteroid, in December.
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