NASA collected asteroid dust, but it’s leaking on its return journey


In case you missed the news, NASA pulled off a pretty complicated maneuver: It collected dust from the asteroid Bennu, a rock speeding through space some 200 million miles from Earth. 

In fact, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft did the job so well that an issue has cropped up since the collection on Tuesday. Some of the sample is leaking into space because a lid was jammed open by large bits of material. 

“The big concern now is that particles are escaping because we’re almost a victim of our own success,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson, via CNN. “Large particles left the flap open. Particles are diffusing out into space. They aren’t moving fast, but nonetheless, it’s valuable scientific material.”

Four years after it launched, the spacecraft retrieved a tiny bit of Bennu on Tuesday in a process that took just 16 seconds.  

NASA has had to shift plans because of the leak. The agency intends to have the collection device stored in its return capsule as soon as Tuesday, opting to skip a step in which the sample would be measured. NASA knows it collected more than enough, but now won’t know the exact size of the collection until it reaches Earth in 2023.

“I was pretty concerned when I saw these images coming in, and I think the most prudent course of action is to very safely stow what we have and minimize any future mass loss,” Lauretta said, according to the Washington Post

Tuesday marked the first time NASA ever collected material from an asteroid. 

“Bennu continues to surprise us with great science and also throwing a few curveballs,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, in a statement. “And although we may have to move more quickly to stow the sample, it’s not a bad problem to have. We are so excited to see what appears to be an abundant sample that will inspire science for decades beyond this historic moment.”

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