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Greedy grabber: NASA scrambles to return jam-packed asteroid sampler to Earth as rock dust escapes from ship’s overstuffed ‘belly’

Three days after touching down on asteroid Bennu hundreds of millions of miles away from home, NASA said its Osiris-Rex spacecraft had become so engorged with asteroid fragments that debris is now leaking from its storage compartment.

“We’re almost a victim of our own success here,” said Dante Lauretta, lead scientist on the mission, NASA’s first-ever attempt to mine a sample from the surface of an asteroid.

The Osiris-Rex craft – short for the “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer” – made contact with the small alien world on Tuesday, landing on Bennu for only a few seconds as it blasted a charge of pressurized nitrogen, disturbing surface rocks that were then collected for a sample. But the ship’s eyes were apparently too big for its stomach, taking on more material than it could handle and potentially jeopardizing the $800 million-plus mission.

With asteroid dust floating away from the ship and a vast journey still ahead of it, the chief of NASA’s science missions, Thomas Zurbuchen, said that “time is of the essence,” but noted that an overabundant sample is “not a bad problem to have,” provided the material does not escape at a faster rate as the craft inches closer to home.

While NASA warned that any movement of Osiris-Rex may lead to “further sample loss,” the agency said its team will now focus on storing the remaining rubble in a “Sample Return Capsule,” where “any loose material will be kept safe during the spacecraft’s journey back to Earth.”

“I think we’re going to have to wait until we get home to know precisely how much we have,” Lauretta said at a press conference. “As you can imagine, that’s hard… But the good news is we see a lot of material.”

Though the mishap risks being a costly one for the mission, netizens couldn’t help but relate with the ravenous asteroid-eater, comparing its binge on space rocks to a buffet outing.

Others took up a more finger-wagging tone, chastising the spacecraft for its “greed” and gluttony, which one user deemed a “metaphor for the human race.”

Osiris-Rex is set to depart the region around Bennu in March and is expected to return back to Earth sometime in 2023, seven years after the craft blasted off from its launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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