NASA Finds Likely Cause of OSIRIS-REx Parachute Deployment Sequence

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample return capsule landed under parachute in the Utah desert on Sept. 24, 2023, and safely delivered a cannister of rocks and dust collected from near-Earth asteroid Bennu. Although the delivery was successful, the landing sequence did not go entirely according to plan, with a small parachute called a drogue not deploying as expected.

After a thorough review of the descent video and the capsule’s extensive documentation, NASA found that inconsistent wiring label definitions in the design plans likely caused engineers to wire the parachutes’ release triggers such that signals meant to deploy the drogue chute fired out of order.

The drogue was expected to deploy at an altitude of about 100,000 feet. It was designed to slow and stabilize the capsule during a roughly five-minute descent prior to main parachute deployment at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. Instead, at 100,000 feet, the signal triggered the system to cut the drogue free while it was still packed in the capsule. When the capsule reached 9,000 feet, the drogue deployed. With its retention cord already cut, the drogue was immediately released from the capsule. The main parachute deployed as expected, and its design was robust enough to stabilize and slow the capsule, resulting in a safe landing more than a minute earlier than expected. There was no negative impact to OSIRIS-REx’s Bennu sample as a result of the unexpected drogue deployment.

In the design plans for the system, the word “main” was used inconsistently between the device that sends the electric signals, and the device that receives the signals. On the signal side, “main” meant the main parachute. In contrast, on the receiver side “main” was used as a reference to a pyrotechnic that fires to release the parachute canister cover and deploy the drogue. Engineers connected the two mains, causing the parachute deployment actions to occur out of order.

To confirm the root cause, NASA will test the system responsible for releasing the parachutes. This hardware is currently inside one of the glove boxes with the Bennu sample at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Once the curation team there completes processing the sample material – the mission’s top priority at present – NASA engineers will be able to access the parachute hardware and verify the cause.

Rani Gran
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Achieves Sample Mass Milestone

The curation team processing NASA’s asteroid Bennu sample has removed and collected 2.48 ounces (70.3 grams) of rocks and dust from the sampler hardware – surpassing the agency’s goal of bringing at least 60 grams to Earth.

And the good news is, there’s still more of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security–Regolith Explorer) sample to collect.

The sample processed so far includes the rocks and dust found on the outside of the sampler head, as well as a portion of the bulk sample from inside the head, which was accessed through the head’s mylar flap. Additional material remaining inside the sampler head, called the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM, is set for removal later, adding to the mass total.

In the last week, the team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston changed its approach to opening the TAGSAM head, which contained the bulk of the rocks and dust collected by the spacecraft in 2020. After multiple attempts at removal, the team discovered two of the 35 fasteners on the TAGSAM head could not be removed with the current tools approved for use in the OSIRIS-REx glovebox. The team has been working to develop and implement new approaches to extract the material inside the head, while continuing to keep the sample safe and pristine.

As a first step, the team successfully accessed some of the material by holding down the head’s mylar flap and removing the sample inside with tweezers or a scoop, depending on material size. The collection and containment of material through this method, combined with the earlier collection of material located outside the head, yielded a total mass exceeding the 60 grams required.

The team will spend the next few weeks developing and practicing a new procedure to remove the remaining asteroid sample from the TAGSAM sampler head while simultaneously processing the material that was collected this week. The OSIRIS-REx science team will also proceed with its plan to characterize the extracted material and begin analysis of the bulk sample obtained so far.

All curation work on the sample – and the TAGSAM head – is performed in a specialized glovebox under a flow of nitrogen to keep it from being exposed to Earth’s atmosphere, preserving the sample’s pristine state for subsequent scientific analysis. The tools for any proposed solution to extract the remaining material from the head must be able to fit inside the glovebox and not compromise the scientific integrity of the collection, and any procedures must be consistent with the clean room’s standards.

While the procedure to access the final portion of the material is being developed, the team has removed the TAGSAM head from the active flow of nitrogen in the glovebox and stored it in its transfer container, sealed with an O-ring and surrounded by a sealed Teflon bag to make sure the sample is kept safe in a stable, nitrogen-rich, environment.

Brian May Guest Blog: Stereoscopic Images from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Sampling Head

Making stereoscopic images of asteroid Bennu was not part of the brief of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission; but we civilians, Claudia Manzoni and myself, were invited by mission principal investigator Dante Lauretta to join the science team and find opportunities for stereoscopy in the wealth of visual data acquired by the spacecraft’s cameras at Bennu.

To do this, we looked for pairs of images of Bennu’s surface taken from viewpoints some distance apart. This separation of viewpoints, known as the “baseline,” has to be just right to give us the experience of depth and reality when the images are viewed stereoscopically. Such viewing requires the left and right images to be delivered separately to our left and right eyes, which is how we see in “real life.” When this is done, the small differences between the components of the stereo pair – known as parallax differences – give our brains the opportunity to instantaneously perceive depth and solidity in the image.

These stereoscopic images are a pair of close-ups of ancient asteroid Bennu material retrieved by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission and delivered to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023. The material is on top of the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism), the instrument used to collect the sample from the asteroid in 2020. The sample and TAGSAM are currently in a clean room within the Astromaterials Curation Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Credit: Erika Blumenfeld, Joseph Abersold for the original images/Brian May, Claudia Manzoni for stereo processing of the images.

In the case of the images shown here, with the Bennu sample safely delivered to planet Earth, the curation team made it easy for us.  In the moments when the TAGSAM head was flipped over after removing it from the avionics deck at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, photographs from many angles were captured, enabling us to find just one (nearly!) perfect pair, showing the intimate structure of just a few grains of the dark, coal-black sample.

It’s possible to view this side-by side stereoscopic pair without a stereoscope, by relaxing the axes of the eyes, as if staring through the screen to infinity.  But the best experience will be had by using a stereoscope, the same way the OSIRIS-REx mission team viewed our stereo images while the search was on to find a safe spot on asteroid Bennu’s surface for the delicate Touch-and-Go sampling maneuver.

The largest “boulders” in this picture are about 1 centimeter across. Enjoy this piece of history in the making!

–Brian May

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Curation Steps Closer to Final Reveal

As the astromaterials curation team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center continues to collect the bonus asteroid Bennu particles located outside the OSIRIS-REx TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) head, they’ve also completed additional steps toward disassembly and reveal of the bulk asteroid sample inside the head.

Five people in blue clean room gowns and white gloves stand around a glove box with a circular sample head inside.
OSIRIS-REx curation team members at NASA’s Johnson Space Center begin the process of removing and flipping the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Mechanism) from the avionics deck of the science canister. Credit: NASA/James Blair

Curation scientists removed 14 circular witness plates from the top of the TAGSAM head on Monday and Tuesday. These plates were used to monitor interior environmental conditions of the spacecraft at various points during the mission and were carefully contained and stored away for contamination knowledge.

After removing all 14 plates and collecting any remaining loose dust, the team removed the TAGSAM head from its avionics deck platform and had the first opportunity to view the 24 surface contact pads on the bottom of the head and the asteroid sample beneath the collector head.

When the sample collector touched the asteroid in October 2020, these surface contact pads trapped fine-grained asteroid rocks and dust directly from Bennu’s surface layer. The materials in the contact pads will provide a unique set of samples that will tell scientists about the conditions at the very surface of Bennu.

The asteroid material on and interior to the capture ring — the secure base into which the TAGSAM was seated when stowed — came from the sample collection event. During collection, TAGSAM shot nitrogen gas at Bennu to push asteroid particles from as deep as 19 inches (50 cm) below the surface into the TAGSAM head, which sealed with a flap. If collected particles held that flap open, they would fall out into the area interior to the capture ring.

These two sets of collected materials will thus give scientists information about the surface material and material at greater depths below the surface. Altogether, these fine-grained samples from the asteroid will help scientists and researchers make new discoveries about the geologic history of asteroid Bennu, its impact history, and implications for asteroid impact assessment.

Images of the bulk sample and early analysis results will be revealed during a live NASA event on Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 11 a.m. EDT.

Rachel Barry
NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston

Initial Curation of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Sample

The initial curation process for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx  sample of asteroid Bennu is moving slower than anticipated, but for the best reason: the sample runneth over. The abundance of material found when the science canister lid was removed earlier this week has meant that the process of disassembling the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism) head – which holds the bulk of material from the asteroid – is off to a methodical start.

A silver capsule is opened inside a glovebox surrounded by technicians gowned in blue protective suits
NASA curation team members along with Lockheed Martin recovery specialists look on after the successful removal of the sample return canister lid. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

After the collection event on Bennu three years ago, scientists expected they could find some asteroid material in the canister outside the TAGSAM head when they saw particles slowly escaping the head before it was stowed. However, the actual amount of dark particles coating the inside of the canister lid and base that surrounds the TAGSAM is even more than they’d anticipated.

“The very best ‘problem’ to have is that there is so much material, it’s taking longer than we expected to collect it,” said deputy OSIRIS-REx curation lead Christopher Snead of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “There’s a lot of abundant material outside the TAGSAM head that’s interesting in its own right. It’s really spectacular to have all that material there.”

The first sample collected from outside the TAGSAM head, on the avionics deck, is now in the hands of scientists who are performing a quick-look analysis, which will provide an initial understanding of the Bennu material and what we can expect to find when the bulk sample is revealed.

“We have all the microanalytical techniques that we can throw at this to really, really tear it apart, almost down to the atomic scale,” said Lindsay Keller, OSIRIS-REx sample analysis team member from Johnson.

The quick-look research will utilize various instruments, including a scanning electron microscope (SEM), infrared measurements, and x-ray diffraction (XRD), to gain a better understanding of the sample.

The SEM will offer a chemical and morphological analysis, while the infrared measurements should provide information on whether the sample contains hydrated minerals and organic-rich particles. The x-ray diffraction is sensitive to the different minerals in a sample and will give an inventory of the minerals and perhaps an indication of their proportions.

“You’ve got really top-notch people and instruments and facilities that are going to be hitting these samples,” Keller said.

This quick-look science is a tool that will offer more data to researchers as they approach the larger pieces of sample for follow-on analysis.

Over the coming weeks, the curation team will move the TAGSAM head into a different specialized glovebox where they will undertake the intricate process of disassembly to ultimately reveal the bulk sample within.

Rachel Barry
NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston

Practicing the Game-Winning Asteroid Sample Catch

The capsule looked like something from a 1960s sci-fi flick. Resting on the ground, slightly tilted, its white heat shield flaked off in places, it looked how one would expect after speeding in from outer space and streaking across the sky like a shooting star. Despite its appearance, the mini-fridge-sized object had, in fact, never left the surface of Earth.

Five people approach a brown and white capsule sitting on a grassy field.
OSIRIS-REx recovery team members from University of Arizona, Lockheed Martin and NASA’s Johnson Space Center approach the sample capsule during a field rehearsal in Colorado at Lockheed Martin Space in June 2023. Credit: Lockheed Martin Space

Instead, it was a replica of the sample capsule mounted on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, which has been cruising through space since it departed asteroid Bennu in May 2021 with an estimated half-pound of pristine asteroid material aboard. For training purposes, engineers placed the replica capsule on a field on the Lockheed Martin campus near Littleton, Colorado, where the spacecraft was built.

OSIRIS-REx team members from NASA, Lockheed Martin, and the University of Arizona had gathered in Littleton on June 27 and 28 to rehearse recovering the capsule. The real one will land on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24.

“We’re literally on a playground here,” said mission Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta, a professor of planetary sciences at University of Arizona in Tucson. “We have room to mess up and practice for the real thing.”

For the June exercise, the recovery team members took their positions next to wooden stakes that represented the four helicopters that will fly them to the capsule landing site.

Picking up a container that dropped from the sky via parachute, bearing 4.5-billion-year-old material collected from an asteroid, is a big deal. The Bennu sample contains primitive material, which could include organic compounds that are found in all Earth life. This material may provide insight into a time when the Sun and planets were born in the swirling cloud of gas and dust that became the solar system. A major goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission is to understand the evolution of organic molecules through solar system history.

Such pristine asteroid material is precious to researchers because it has been shielded from Earth’s environment, unlike meteorites that fall to the ground and are collected on the surface. So the team in Colorado practiced taking samples from the environment around the capsule to create a library of everything it could get exposed to – soil, air, organic matter and so on.

Documenting the environmental conditions around the capsule will be critical for science, Lauretta said: “That way, if we find something that looks fundamental to the origin of life, we’ll have no doubt, and should be able to rule it out as a contaminant because of that documented history.”

Before any team members could approach the capsule to collect environmental evidence, Vicki Thiem, a safety engineer with Lockheed Martin, rehearsed taking its temperature, which she’ll do on Sept. 24 to ensure the capsule has cooled down from its fiery descent through the atmosphere.

Next, the safety team practiced inspecting the area around the capsule for potential hazards, such as gases that might be emanating from it. Once the capsule was secured, Lauretta and his team inspected the terrain, planting little red flags into the ground to demarcate a “keep-out zone” where they needed to collect samples.

People clothed in white from head-to-toe hold a brown capsule in a clean room.
Team members from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission rehearse moving the sample capsule into a clean room at Lockheed Martin designed to closely resemble the one that will be used at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: Lockheed Martin Space

Once the capsule was ready for transport, two people lifted the 100-pound (45-kilogram) replica into a metal crate and wrapped it in multiple sheets of a non-reactive plastic material and then a tarp. Next, they wrapped the crate in a harness that was secured to a cable that, in real life, will be attached to a helicopter and flown to a clean room set up in a hangar where the capsule will be opened and the sample canister extracted. The day after the sample lands on Earth, the canister and capsule will be flown to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston where the sample will be cared for, stored, and distributed to global scientists.

The OSIRIS-REx team has two rehearsals left, each with increasingly realistic conditions, at the Utah military training range where the capsule will land this fall.

– Daniel Stolte, University of Arizona

2020 – 2023: Touchdown! And Goodbye


This week, we have been recapping noteworthy OSIRIS-REx mission events each day so you can catch up on anything you may have missed so far on NASA’s first mission to collect a sample from an asteroid. 

(Post #4 in a series of four) 

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At 1:50 p.m. EDT on Oct. 20, 2020, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft fired its thrusters to nudge itself out of orbit around Bennu. It extended the shoulder, then elbow, then wrist of its 11-foot (3.35-meter) sampling arm and transited across Bennu while descending about half a mile (805 meters) toward the surface. After about a four-hour autonomous descent to a 26-foot- (8-meter-) wide spot on Bennu, past menacing boulders that could tip the spacecraft or the sample head and thwart the sample grab, OSIRIS-REx contacted the surface. It then fired a burst of nitrogen gas that stirred up dust and rocks, which were captured by the sample-collection head. Finally, OSIRIS-REx fired its thrusters and safely backed away from Bennu, allowing a captivated global audience to breathe a collective sigh of relief.  

Before departing Bennu, OSIRIS-REx conducted one last flyby of the sample site, “Nightingale,” so scientists could see how the spacecraft’s contact with Bennu’s surface altered the site. They saw something astonishing: Even though the spacecraft barely touched the surface, it left a sizeable crater and scattered many rocks. Scientists ran hundreds of computer simulations to understand how this could have happened, given they had expected the spacecraft to leave only a small divot in the surface.  

That’s when they learned that the particles making up Bennu’s exterior are loosely packed and lightly bound to each other, which means they act more like a fluid than a solid. Had it not fired its thrusters to back away immediately after grabbing a sample, OSIRIS-REx would have sunk into Bennu. 

On May 10, 2021, the spacecraft departed Bennu and headed back toward Earth to drop off the sample-return capsule. When it arrives here on Sept. 24, 2023, OSIRIS-REx will release its sample capsule to land on Earth in the Utah desert, but the spacecraft will not land itself. With the sample delivered, the spacecraft will set off on a new mission, OSIRIS-APEX (OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer), to explore asteroid Apophis. 

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Learn more: 

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Collects Significant Amount of Asteroid 

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Heads for Earth with Asteroid Sample 

Surprise – Again! Asteroid Bennu Reveals its Surface is Like a Plastic Ball Pit 

— Lonnie Shekhtman 

2019 – 2020: Choosing a Touchdown Site from a Sea of Hazards 

This week, we are recapping noteworthy OSIRIS-REx mission events each day so you can catch up on anything you may have missed so far in NASA’s first mission to collect a sample from an asteroid.   

(Post #3 in a series of four) 

Pictured here are the four candidate sample collection sites on asteroid Bennu selected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. Site Nightingale (top left) is located on Bennu’s northern hemisphere. Sites Kingfisher (top right) and Osprey (bottom left) are located on Bennu’s equatorial region. Site Sandpiper (bottom right) is located on Bennu’s southern hemisphere. Nightingale was chosen as the sample collection site. CREDITS: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

Given Bennu’s unexpectedly rough terrain, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx team took extra time to evaluate potential sample collection areas. They looked for flat surfaces between numerous rugged boulders. They also looked for regions with fine grains on the surface that the spacecraft could easily ingest. Through their own analyses and a public mapping campaign, the mission team first identified more than 50 sites, whittled those down to 16, and then to the final four candidates. The spacecraft then spent a month investigating each of the four sites and sending home images so scientists could further evaluate them.  

A spot dubbed “Nightingale” by the team, set in a small crater, rose to the top of the list in December 2019. The size of a few parking spaces, Nightingale was the most promising location to meet both safety and sample-availability considerations. But it wasn’t perfect. The area was only about one-tenth the size the mission team had planned for. This put pressure on OSIRIS-REx navigation engineers to program the spacecraft to dodge boulders, such as a building-size one, nicknamed “Mount Doom,” during its 2020 autonomous navigation to a small spot on the surface. 

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Learn more: 

NASA Mission Selects Final Four Site Candidates for Asteroid Sample Return 

X Marks the Spot: NASA Selects Site for Asteroid Sample Collection 

Coming up tomorrow: “Touchdown! And Goodbye.” 

  — Lonnie Shekhtman 

2018: Arrival at Bennu — A World Full of Surprises 

This week, we are recapping noteworthy OSIRIS-REx mission events each day so you can catch up on anything you may have missed so far in NASA’s first mission to collect a sample from an asteroid.  

(Post #2 in a series of four)

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After traveling 1.2 billion miles (2 billion kilometers) to Bennu, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived in December 2018 and began orbiting the asteroid. Until the spacecraft got to Bennu, we could only see the asteroid as a pixelated blob through Earth telescopes and radar measurements. Still, scientists had an idea of what they would find at Bennu by using years of radar and thermal measurements and computer models to predict its mass, shape, and surface features.  

On the left, a compilation of radar images of asteroid Bennu. On the right, a shape model based on radar imaging and visible light curves. CREDITS: Michael C. Nolan / Arecibo Observatory / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

In early 2019, OSIRIS-REx began to study Bennu in detail. The spacecraft zigzagged Bennu in a trajectory that looked like a child’s sweeping crayon sketch. The first closeup images of the asteroid revealed surprises that would require scientists to update some of the fundamental assumptions used in their predictive computer models.  

Instead of there being a smooth, sandy beach on the surface that the mission team had expected to see, Bennu was littered with boulders and was spewing rock particles into space. It became clear that safely navigating to the surface would be an unexpected challenge. The mission team would spend most of the next year mapping Bennu in detail and looking for a relatively smooth area with the fewest hazards and the most opportunity to gather scientifically interesting samples. 

Learn more:

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Arrives at Asteroid Bennu 

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Enters Close Orbit Around Bennu, Breaking Record 

NASA Mission Reveals Asteroid Has Big Surprises 

Coming up tomorrow: “Choosing a Touchdown Site from a Sea of Hazards.” 

 — Lonnie Shekhtman 

2016: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Launches from Earth

This week, we are recapping noteworthy OSIRIS-REx mission events each day so you can catch up on anything you may have missed so far in NASA’s first mission to collect a sample from an asteroid.  

(Post #1 in a series of four) 

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NASA’s first mission to sample an asteroid, OSIRIS-REx, launched on Sept. 8, 2016, at 7:05 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. About the size of an S.U.V., OSIRIS-REx would travel for two years to a near-Earth asteroid originally designated 1999 RQ36. The name “Bennu,” referencing an ancient Egyptian deity, was picked in 2013 by nine-year-old Michael Puzio, from North Carolina, who won a naming competition.  

NASA chose to go to Bennu because the asteroid possesses several key characteristics that make it perfect for a sample return mission. Here are all the reasons why 

Scientists around the globe have been waiting for years for the spacecraft to deliver a sample from Bennu to Earth. Among the many questions they’ve been waiting to explore by analyzing pieces of Bennu is: Did asteroids deliver molecules that played a role in the origin of life on Earth, and potentially on other planets and moons? 

Learn more: 

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Speeds Toward Asteroid Rendezvous 

Why Bennu? 10 Reasons 

Coming up tomorrow:Arrival at Bennu — A World Full of Surprises.” 

— Lonnie Shekhtman