NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is tucking away precious asteroid samples for safekeeping

Captured by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s SamCam camera on Oct. 22, 2020, this series of three images shows that the sampler head on the NASA spacecraft is full of rocks and dust collected from the surface of the asteroid Bennu. Some of these particles are slowly escaping the sampler head. Analysis by the OSIRIS-REx team suggests that bits of material are passing through small gaps where the head’s Mylar flap is slightly wedged open.

(Image: © NASA)

NASA’s asteroid-sampling maneuver last week was so successful that the spacecraft will begin stowing its new souvenirs today (Oct. 27) to avoid losing rock by idling around.

The agency’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touched down on an asteroid named Bennu on Oct. 20 and puffed nitrogen gas at the space rock to blow pieces into the arm’s sampling head before backing away to safety. When OSIRIS-REx scientists were able to see images of the sampling head on Oct. 22, they realized that the maneuver had been so successful that asteroid rubble blocked the flap designed to close off the material in the arm.

Some of the spacecraft’s precious haul started leaking away.

Related: OSIRIS-REx: NASA’s asteroid sample-return mission in pictures

So, in a procedure that’s become familiar for the OSIRIS-REx team, the mission’s scientists and engineers reevaluated their plans. Originally, the spacecraft was scheduled to make a careful pirouette over the weekend that would tell scientists precisely how much weight OSIRIS-REx had picked up in its encounter. But without the flap fully closed, that spin would result in the spacecraft losing more space rock.

To prevent this, the mission staff decided to skip that step and instead go ahead and stow the sample, a days-long maneuver that starts today, rather than waiting until Nov. 2 as had been previously planned. The process will tuck the spacecraft’s sampling head securely into its sample return capsule for safe travel to Earth. 

An artist’s depiction of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft stowing its sampling head.  (Image credit: NASA/University of Arizona, Tucson)

The OSIRIS-REx (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) mission isn’t done studying Bennu, however. The mission is scheduled to remain at the space rock until the middle of next year before turning back to Earth, where it will deliver its cargo in 2023.

Email Meghan Bartels at or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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