NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft goes for early storage of the asteroid sample


This illustration shows NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft stowing away the sample collected by the asteroid Bennu on October 20, 2020. The spacecraft uses its TAGSAM (Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) arm to position the TAGSAM collector head in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC). (Credits: NASA / University of Arizona, Tucson)

On Tuesday, October 27, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission performed an early stowage of the large sample collected from the surface of the asteroid Bennu to protect and return as much of the sample as possible.

On October 22, the OSIRIS-REx mission team received images showing the spacecraft’s collector head overflowing with material collected from Bennu’s surface – well beyond the two-ounce (60-gram) mission requirement – and that some of these particles appeared to be slowly leaking from the collection head, called TAGSAM (Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism).

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A mylar flap on the TAGSAM allows the material to easily enter the collector head and should close once the particles pass through. However, larger rocks that did not fully pass through the flap into the TAGSAM appear to have opened this flap, allowing sample fragments to escape.

Because the first sample collection event was so successful, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate gave the mission team the green light to expedite sample stowage, originally scheduled for November 2, in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) spacecraft to minimize further sample loss.

“The abundance of material we collected from Bennu made it possible to accelerate our decision to stow,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The team works around the clock to speed up stowage times, so they can protect as much material as possible for return to Earth.”

Unlike other spacecraft operations where OSIRIS-REx autonomously performs an entire sequence, sample stowage is performed in multiple stages and requires team supervision and input. The team sends preliminary commands to the spacecraft to initiate the stowage sequence, and once OSIRIS-REx completes each step in sequence, the spacecraft sends telemetry data and images to the team on Earth and awaits the team’s confirmation to proceed. with the next step.

The signals currently take just over 18.5 minutes to travel one way between Earth and the spacecraft, so each step in the sequence calculates approximately 37 minutes of communications transit time. Throughout the process, the mission team continuously evaluates the wrist alignment of the TAGSAM to ensure that the collector head is correctly positioned in the SRC. A new imaging sequence was also added to the process to observe the material escaping from the collector head and verify that no particles obstruct the stowage process. The mission predicts that the entire stowage process will take multiple days, after which the sample will be securely sealed in the SRC for the spacecraft’s return journey to Earth.

“I am proud of the outstanding work and success of the OSIRIS-REx team to this point,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Associate Administrator for Science. “This mission is well positioned to return a substantial historical sample of an asteroid to Earth, and they did all the right things, quickly, to protect that precious cargo.”

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides general mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The University of Arizona, Tucson, leads the scientific observation planning and data processing of the mission. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace, in Tempe, Arizona, are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx probe. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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