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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Mission to asteroid revs up

    Jacob Witt

    Lunar and Planetary Lab and UA art students, led by Alfred Quiroz, a UA professor of art, collaborated to create a mural. It is meant to commemorate the OSIRIS-REx mission, and is on display on the west side of the Michael J. Drake building.

    On Sept. 3, 2016, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission, developed and spearheaded by the UA, will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and begin its two-year journey to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.

    By 2016, the endeavor will have been 12 years in the making. The proposal was first submitted to NASA in 2004.

    OSIRIS-REx is an acronym for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer.

    The title “OSIRIS-REx” was selected because it embodies the five major goals of the mission, explained Bashar Rizk, senior staff scientist at the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite instrument scientist.

    According to Dante Lauretta’s blog “Life on the Asteroid Frontier”,’ OSIRIS-REx also parallels the myth of Osiris in ancient Egypt. Lauretta is the principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission and a UA professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry

    Much like Osiris brought knowledge of agriculture to the Nile Delta, which led to the development of modern civilization, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will return asteroid samples that may very well have been the “seeds of life” that originated life on Earth. Asteroids and Osiris can also be associated with both life and death.

    The samples and data to be obtained by OSIRIS-REx and returned to Earth by September 2023 will reveal valuable information about the origins of the solar system, asteroid evolution, carbon-rich resources that could be utilized for future missions, and patterns that may put Earth at risk for asteroid collision, Rizk said.

    A number of institutions have collaborated to integrate the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft with a variety of cutting edge technological tools aimed to maximize the quality of data obtained, Rizk explained.

    These instruments include a state-of-the-art camera suite and laser imaging technology to characterize the size, shape, geology and environment of Bennu, as well as several other instruments that collect and analyze samples. One example is the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, otherwise known as the TAGSAM, which collects asteroid samples by agitating the surface of Bennu with quick spurts of inert gas and sucking them in with a vacuum.

    “The primary objective of OSIRIS-REx is to return pristine carbonaceous material from the early Solar System,” Lauretta writes. “These rocks are rich in organic compounds and water-bearing minerals like clays. We hope to find organic molecules that may have led to the origin of life on Earth and inform the likelihood that life may have originated elsewhere in our solar system.”

    Following the initial proposal in 2004, four subsequent proposals were written and re-submitted until OSIRIS-REx was selected for NASA’s New Frontiers Program in 2011.

    “It turns out getting selected was the easy part,” Lauretta writes.

    Since selection by NASA, the OSIRIS-REx team has surpassed four of the five rigorous checkpoints called Key Decision Points, Lauretta writes. The OSIRIS-REx team passed the fourth checkpoint last month and has since begun the last checkpoint: assembly, test and launch operations.

    “Building and flying a spacecraft on an interplanetary trajectory is a challenging task,” Rizk said. “No single failure can be allowed to threaten the failure of the mission, and, hardest of all, it must all be done under an unforgiving time schedule. The planets wait for no one.”


    Follow Jacob Witt on Twitter.

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