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Current Affairs

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission facing problems

Date: 26 October 2020 Tags: Space

Issue

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which was sent to collect rocks and dust from the surface of a near-Earth asteroid, had its door wedged open and precious samples are presently leaking into space.

 

Background

Days after the spacecraft first touched the surface of asteroid Bennu, located over 200 million miles away from Earth, the coordinators of the mission are now saying that it may have performed too well.

 

Details

  • When the team behind the mission analysed images taken of the spacecraft’s collector head they realised that it had gathered far more samples than they had anticipated.

  • The spacecraft’s robotic arm, also called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism or Tagsam, had made contact with the surface of the ancient Bennu asteroid.

  • While mission planners expected the total time of contact to be less than 16 seconds, the actual period of contact was a mere six seconds and most of the sample was collected within the first three seconds.

  • The robotic arm penetrated deeply into the surface of the asteroid with such force that several large rocks were wedged around the rim of the container’s lid. As a result, particles are now spilling over and escaping into space.

  • NASA is now trying to minimise the damage and rushing to stow the collection container within the spacecraft well ahead of schedule. 

  • To preserve what is left of the surface material, the mission team has decided to cancel activities planned this weekend to prevent more sample loss due to excessive movement. 

  • Despite hastening the process, the craft will not be returning to Earth before 2023. It is only then that the team will be able to measure out the samples collected. But they are confident that they have enough.

 

Asteroid Bennu

  • Asteroid Bennu was first discovered by a team from the NASA-funded Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research team in 1999. It was named after an Egyptian deity.

  • Significantly, Bennu hasn’t undergone drastic changes since its formation over billions of years ago and, therefore, it contains chemicals and rocks dating back to the birth of the solar system. It is also relatively close to the Earth.

  • In 2016, NASA launched the OSIRIS-REx — Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer — mission to collect samples of pebbles and dust from the surface of the ancient asteroid for the first time in history.

  • The spacecraft contains five instruments meant to explore Bennu including cameras, a spectrometer, and a laser altimeter. The departure window for the mission will open up in 2021, after which it will take over two years to reach Earth.