How long does it take a team of rocket scientists to remove two screws? When the screws they’re working on are keeping a priceless sample of asteroid safe, it’s about three months. That’s how long NASA has been working on the OSIRIS-REx sample return canister, which came back to Earth from asteroid Bennu back in September. The container was crammed full of asteroid bits, thanks in part to an overly energetic impact between the sample-collecting boom and Bennu. There was so much stuff that planetary scientists were able to recover about 70 grams of material that was covering the outside of the sealed container; this must have been a boon to the engineers, who got to figure out how to open the jammed cover of the container without anyone breathing down their necks for samples to study. The problem was a pair of stuck fasteners out of the 35 holding the lid on the container; the solution was far more complicated than a spritz of WD-40 and a little bit of heating with an oxy-acetylene torch. Engineers had to design two “clamp-like tools” and test them on a mock-up to make sure they wouldn’t contaminate the sample. We’d love to know more about these tools; trust us, we’ll be looking into this closely. If we find anything, a full article will be forthcoming.
When NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule screamed its way through the upper atmosphere, it marked the first time the space agency had brought material from an asteroid back to Earth. Hundreds of thousands tuned into the September 24th live stream so they could watch the capsule land at the Utah Test and Training Range. But about ten minutes before the capsule was set to touchdown, keen eyed viewers may have noticed something a bit odd — when ground control called out that the vehicle’s drogue parachute was commanded to deploy…nothing seemed to happen.
Now NASA knows why it didn’t work as expected, and it ended up being the sort of Earthly problem that we’d wager a few in this audience have run into themselves from time to time.
“As California goes, so goes the nation.” That adage has been true on and off for the last 100 years or so, and it’s true again now that GM’s Cruise self-driving car unit has halted operations across the United States, just a couple of days after California’s DMV suspended its license to conduct driverless tests on state roadways. The nationwide shutdown of testing was undertaken voluntarily by the company and takes their sore beset self-driving taxi fleet off the road in Phoenix, Houston, Austin, Dallas, and Miami, in addition to the California ban, which seemed to be mainly happening in San Francisco. Cruise’s fleet has suffered all manner of indignities over the last few months, from vandalism to “coning” pranks to even being used as rolling hookup spots, and that’s not to mention all the trouble they caused by brigading to the same address or losing games of chicken with a semi and a firetruck. We’re not sure what to make of all this; despite our somewhat snarky commentary on the company’s woes, we take little pleasure in this development other than to the degree it probably increases roadway safety in the former test cities. We really do want to see self-driving cars succeed, at least for certain use cases, but it seems like this is a case of too much, too soon for the technology we currently have at our disposal.
Too much of a good thing is generally a bad thing, but a surfeit of asteroid material is probably a valid exception to that rule. Such was NASA’s plight as it started to unpack the sample return capsule recently dropped off by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft as it flew by Earth, only to discover it was packed to overflowing with samples of asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft, which arrived at Bennu in 2018 and spent a good long time mapping the near-Earth asteroid, apparently approached its carefully selected landing site a bit too energetically and really packed the sample container full of BennuBits™ — so much so that they could actually see sample shedding off into space before stowing it for the long trip back to Earth. The container is now safely in the hands of the sample analysis team, who noted that everything in the TAGSAM (Touch and Go Sample Acquisition Module), even the avionics deck, is covered with black particles, each precious one of which needs to be collected and cataloged. The black stuff is especially interesting to planetary scientists, as it might be exactly what they were after when they selected Bennu, which may have broken off a much larger carbon-rich asteroid a billion or so years ago. It’ll be interesting to see if these interplanetary hitchhikers have anything to tell us about the origin of life in the solar system.
After a four year trek through deep space, OSIRIS-REx made history this evening as it became the first NASA spacecraft to try and collect a surface sample from an asteroid (Editor’s note: servers may be down due to the breaking news). Once sensors verify the collected material is safely onboard, the vehicle will begin drifting away from the 490 meter wide Bennu in preparation of its eventual departure and return to Earth. If all goes according to plan, the craft’s conical Sample Return Capsule carrying its precious cargo will renter the atmosphere and land at the Utah Test and Training Range in September of 2023.
Due to its extremely low gravity and rocky surface, a traditional landing on Bennu was deemed impractical. Instead, OSIRIS-REx performed a daring touch and go maneuver that brought the spacecraft into contact with the surface for just a few seconds.
A camera on the bottom of the vehicle took images every few minutes during the descent and ran them through an onboard system called Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) that autonomously steered it away from dangerous surface features. As a precaution, the solar panels on the OSIRIS-REx were angled backwards in a “Y-Wing” configuration shortly before the descent to help protect them from striking the surface or being damaged by ejected material.
Once the colander-like Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) mounted to the end of the spacecraft’s 3.35 meter (11 foot) articulated robotic arm arm made contact with the regolith, pressurized nitrogen was used to kick up material and push it towards storage caches built into the mechanism. With so much riding on the successful collection of surface material, this largely passive system was selected to minimize the possible failures in the critical few seconds that OSIRIS-REx would be in contact with Bennu. Mission planners say it might take until Saturday to determine if a sample was successfully collected, and that the spacecraft has the ability to perform two more attempts if needed.
After its discovery in September 1999, both the Arecibo Observatory and the Goldstone Deep Space Network were used to make radar observations of Bennu to study its shape and size. Calculations have shown it has a cumulative 1 in 2,700 chance of striking the Earth by the year 2199. By mapping the asteroid, studying it at close range, and bringing a geological sample back home, NASA hopes to gain valuable insight on how similar near-Earth objects can be detected and ultimately diverted if needed.