Curated sample return roundup feat. OSIRIS-REx

Learn more about collecting samples from other worlds and what's next.

NASA just had a truck-sized robot, OSIRIS-REx, autonomously sample an asteroid millions of kilometers away under (literally) rocky circumstances. Is science cool or what! Here’s a bunch of curated links for you to learn more about collecting samples from other worlds.

Why do we even bother sending complex and expensive sample return missions to worlds when spacecraft can just study them using versatile instruments onboard? Jason Davis from The Planetary Society has written a great overview page to answer that.

Why sample return

As for why we study small worlds like asteroids at all, here’s my primer with an overview of learnings from all missions to asteroids, comets and small worlds till date and what’s next.

Why explore small worlds

OSIRIS-REx’s sample collection mechanism worked like a charm, it seems, but even if things had gone awry, mission designers were firm on getting work done. From the paper describing the collection mechanism,

Extensive 1-g laboratory testing, “reduced-gravity” testing (via parabolic flights on an airplane), and analysis demonstrate that TAGSAM will collect asteroid material in nominal conditions, and a variety of off-nominal conditions, such as the presence of large obstacles under the TAGSAM sampling head, or failure in the sampling gas firing.

The two kilograms of sample OSIRIS-REx is aiming to get to Earth will teach us how these small worlds delivered water and organics to our planet four billion years ago. The last time we brought substantial amounts of material from another world, the Moon, it revolutionized our understanding of both its origin and that of the Earth.

Apollo samples and origin of the Moon

The next sample return mission is China’s Chang’e 5, launching in November 2020. It will collect up to four kilograms of soil from a geologically young region on the Moon. I’m working on an article on the scientific importance of Chang’e 5’s landing site. For China, Chang’e 5 will be followed by another sample return mission to the Moon, Chang’e 6, and an asteroid sample return.

This decade will also see the first ever samples being returned from the martian system, two sets of them in fact – one from Mars’s moon Phobos and the other from the red planet itself.

Japan's mission to sample Phobos

NASA Perseverance and a sample return

Last but not the least, Emily Lakdawalla has an excellent overview article on times when the Solar System has reminded us that collecting samples from other worlds is no easy feat.

Sample collection is hard


This was my first attempt at sending a curated newsletter to my readers on a current space exploration topic. Did you find it useful? Should I continue doing this? Or it doesn’t add unique value? Please let me know.

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