Scientists announced the news three days after a spacecraft named Osiris-Rex briefly touched NASA’s first attempt, the asteroid Ben Nou.
Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona said on Tuesday that while operating 200 million miles away, it had collected hundreds of grams of material far more than expected to return to Earth. The sample container at the end of the robotic arm penetrated deep into the asteroid, and with that force, the rock was sucked into it and wedge-shaped at the edge of the lid.
Scientists estimate that the sampler was pushed about 48 cm (19 inches) over rough, brittle black terrain.
Lauretta said in an urgently prepared press conference: “We are almost the victim of our own success here.”
Lauretta said there was nothing the flight controller could do to remove the obstacles and prevent more Bennu pieces from escaping, besides putting the sample back into the return capsule as soon as possible.
So the flight team had to encapsulate the sample container as early as Tuesday-much earlier than originally planned-for a long trip home.
“Time is paramount,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Director of Scientific Missions at NASA.
This is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission. Bennu was chosen because he believes that carbon-rich materials hold the preserved building blocks of our solar system. Bringing the pieces out of this space time capsule could help scientists better understand how planets formed billions of years ago and how life began on Earth.
Scientists were amazed when they saw Osiris-Rex’s photos on Thursday following the grand successful touch-and-go at Bennu two days ago.
As the spacecraft retreated from Bennu, you could see a cloud of asteroid particles swirling around the spacecraft. According to Lauretta, things seemed to be stable once the robotic arm was held in place. However, it was impossible to know exactly how much had already been lost.
The requirement for a $800 million+ mission was to get at least 2 ounces (60 grams) back.
Regardless of the boarding, Osiris-Rex will be leaving near the asteroid in March. This is the earliest start possible given the relative position of Earth and Bennu. Samples are irreversible until 2023, seven years after the spacecraft moved away from Cape Canaveral.
Osiris-Rex will continue to drift in Bennu and not orbit again, as Osiris-Rex is waiting for the scheduled departure.
Due to the sudden event, scientists cannot know how much of the sample capsule will hold until it returns to Earth. Initially, it was planned to rotate the ship to measure its contents, but the maneuver was canceled because more debris could spill over.
Lauretta told reporters, “I think we will have to wait until we get home to know exactly how much we have. “As you can imagine, it is difficult. …But the good news is that we see a lot of material.”
Meanwhile, Japan is waiting for a second batch of samples taken from another asteroid scheduled for December.