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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


UA takes lead in asteroid research mission

To better understand the future, NASA and the UA are teaming up to extract and study a chunk of the solar system’s past.

The UA will receive roughly one-quarter of NASA’s $800 million  contract to develop and operate the mission, known as the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx.

OSIRIS-REx is an asteroid sample return mission that, if successful, will extract and bring back at least 60 grams of pristine, uncontaminated material to Earth for study in terrestrial laboratories, said Paul Hertz, chief scientist in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA.

The final mission criteria, which are yet to be “”signed and approved,”” will most likely determine whether or not the OSIRIS-REx mission is a success by NASA’s standards, Hertz said.

Michael Drake, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the mission’s principal investigator, will lead OSIRIS-REx and act as its “”quarterback.””

Drake said that achieving and surpassing all of the goals NASA entrusted to him is more a matter of pride than pressure. And although it won’t be an easy task, he said he has an enormous amount of confidence in his team and their ability to get the job done.

OSIRIS-REx is also the name of the box-shaped spacecraft that will launch in 2016. The spacecraft is solar-powered and contains various antennae for communication and cameras that will assist in navigation and mapping.

The sampling head, attached at the end of the robotic arm’s 6-foot body, will collect soil from the asteroid, known as regolith.

“”We’re gonna try and get at least 60 grams,”” Drake said. “”We’ve never failed to get vastly more than that. We’re capable of getting a maximum of five pounds … enough for literally generations of Americans and others around the world to study.””

The mission has two core goals, Drake said. First, to understand the origin of the organic material that led to self-replicating life. Drake said he believes that asteroid 1999 RQ36, the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission, contains the building blocks of biologic life.

The 4.5 billion-year-old time capsule left over from the formation of the solar system is far and away the most hazardous object known to humanity, Drake said. The roughly spherical pitch-black-colored gob of rock and dust extends about a one-third of a mile across and rotates roughly six times faster than the Earth.

With a 1-in-1800 chance to hit the planet in 2182, it may not seem like much to worry about, but Drake would beg to differ. He gave an example of the asteroid’s power by saying that if it were to land in Tucson, small chunks “”big enough to hurt you”” would reach the East Coast. It would not destroy the Earth, but if it happened to land in a heavily populated area, the initial amount of destruction it could cause would be astronomical, not to mention the titanic dent it would leave in the global economy.

The second goal of the mission is not to destroy asteroid 1999 RQ36, but to understand its properties in order to move it if necessary.  

“”I’m really confident that we have the right team in place and the right resources to get this job done and do it well,”” said Dante Lauretta, the mission’s deputy principal investigator. “”We’ve assembled a world class science team. We have international partners in Canada, UK (United Kingdom), Germany, France, Italy and more showing interest everyday. We got the full support of NASA and President (Barack) Obama. We’ve set a new standard for NASA in terms of early mission development and we intend to carry that through.””

Other major partners in the project include the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, which will be leading flight dynamics and ground system development. Lockheed Martin, the largest financial beneficiary of the contract, will build the majority of the spacecraft. Lauretta added that an important distinction to make is that Lockheed Martin will control the actual spacecraft while the UA will control the instruments on it.

The UA’s role in the mission also includes building the camera systems, generating the data products, archiving data with NASA and running the education and outreach program, Lauretta said.

The UA will begin receiving its share of the contract on July 15 and the mission will take off in 2016. Images of the Earth and moon will start being sent back in 2017 and characterization and mapping of the asteroid will start three years later. The regolith example should be acquired in 2020 and OSIRIS-REx will begin to return to Earth in March 2021. The samples will be returned in 2023 and the mission will continue to be funded through 2025 for sample analysis and final science product.

Lauretta said that the toughest part of the mission will be maintaining team chemistry and communication as the mission’s team continues to grow. He added that as long as they can maintain the positive culture they’ve established, he is confident that they can overcome any technical challenge they may encounter.

From a fiscal perspective, UA President Robert Shelton said the positive impact of the mission on the UA will be felt for years to come and that many departments and organizations will benefit tremendously. Significant and long-lasting awards and contracts for people to continue to study the asteroid material will translate into more jobs for the community, he said.

“”We’ve reaffirmed that we know how to be number one,”” Shelton said. “”It’s impossible to be number one in everything. But it’s important that, as an institution, we know how to be the very best at some things and this reaffirms that in space exploration for the UA.””

Shelton added that he would measure short-term success by bringing material back from the asteroid. Long-term, however, remains uncertain.

“”I don’t know. But that is the nature of science,”” he said. “”If you know the answer, you don’t have to do it. If you look at the advances that have come to humankind, it’s through people who pursued ideas not knowing if they would have relevance but knowing that it’ll advance the human condition in the long run.””

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