A NASA spacecraft descended to an asteroid last week. The ship dodged boulders the size of buildings, briefly touched the surface, and collected a handful of cosmic rubble. But the grab was so greedy that the spacecraft jammed open. Now precious particles are drifting away in space.
OSIRIS-REx was deployed on a NASA asteroid-study and sample-return mission. The spacecraft has been circling the asteroid for about two years. Last week, the craft descended to the treacherous, boulder-packed surface and snatched a handful of rubble. “Touchdown declared,” a flight controller announced to cheers and applause. “Sampling is in progress.”
Sadly, scientists believe getting pieces from this Bennu could help them understand how the planets formed “billions of years ago” and how life originated on Earth. Christians have God’s word to tell them that God created the world and everything in it. (See the Genesis 1 account of creation!)
Lead scientist Dante Lauretta says, “I can’t believe we actually pulled this off.”
There’s just one problem.
The sample container on the end of the robot arm penetrated so far into the asteroid—and with such force—that rocks got sucked in and wedged the lid open.
“We’re almost a victim of our own success here,” Lauretta explains. He says the only thing flight controllers can do is get the samples into their return capsule as soon as possible.
“Time is of the essence,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, chief of NASA’s science missions.
The jubilant scientists were stunned and dismayed to see a cloud of particles swirling around the spacecraft as it backed away from Bennu, more than 200 million miles away. According to Lauretta, the situation seemed to stabilize when the robot arm locked into place. But the NASA team still couldn’t tell exactly how much rubble had already been lost. They had hoped to bring back a minimum of two ounces.
Because of the sudden turn of events, scientists won’t know how much the sample capsule holds until it’s back on Earth. They had planned to spin the spacecraft and measure the contents. But they canceled that move—since even more debris could spill.
“I think we’re going to have to wait until we get home to know precisely how much we have,” Lauretta says. “As you can imagine, that’s hard. . . . But the good news is we see a lot of material.”
Regardless of what’s on board, the asteroid mission is over. OSIRIS-REx will keep drifting away from Bennu without orbiting or touching down on the asteroid again.
The space grab was a first for the United States: Only Japan has scored asteroid samples before. In fact, Japan, is currently waiting for its second batch of samples taken from a different asteroid. That spacecraft is due back in December. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft isn’t due home until 2023. NASA scientists will just have to wait.
(In this image taken from video released by NASA, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touches the surface of asteroid Bennu on Tuesday, October 20, 2020. NASA via AP)