Delicate operation on October 27 to secure the cargo of the Osiris-Rex probe

The American probe Osiris-Rex will begin Tuesday, October 27 a multi-day operation to store in an airtight capsule the asteroid fragments that it picked up last week, but which escape into space due to a poorly closed valve.

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NASA image from October 22 showing the compartment at the end of the Osiris-Rex probe arm from which asteroid fragments escape due to an improperly closed valve. Photo: AFP / VNA / CVN

NASA confirmed Monday, October 26 that the procedure would begin the next day: the soil samples from the asteroid Bennu are currently at the end of the probe’s arm of more than three meters in length, in a compartment from which they overflow, and which fails to close due to relatively large stones. It is this arm that was in contact for a few seconds with Bennu last Tuesday, October 20, the culmination of a mission launched from Earth four years earlier. But concern had given way to initial euphoria at NASA on Friday, October 23 after the probe sent images showing several grams of particles floating around the arm, confirming a leak.

The goal is to place the compartment in a capsule which is located in the center of the probe. Osiris-Rex is due to return to Earth next year and drop the capsule to land in the United States in 2023, with what scientists hope is the largest alien sample ever brought back to Earth since the missions Apollo. The urgency is to secure the cargo as quickly as possible, and the team therefore decided to bring storage forward to Tuesday, instead of November 2.

The abundance of material collected on Bennu justifies our decision to advance storage“said Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona and leader of the project. The procedure will take several days, according to NASA, because it will not be fully automated like the previous operations. After each step, the probe will return on Earth of information and images so that scientists can verify that the arm is aligned and that no particles are likely to block the storage. However, the probe is 18.5 light minutes away: any signal takes 18 and a half minutes to arrive on Earth, and any signal from the control room needs the same time to reach Osiris-Rex. The slightest dialogue therefore lasts 37 minutes.