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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Q&A: Dante’s spheres of the heavens

Entering his fifth year as an undergraduate at the UA, Dante Lauretta had no idea what he wanted to do after earning a degree in mathematics. Adding a degree in physics and some studies in Japanese gave him time to stumble onto planetary science — and start his interest in small rock, ice and metallic bodies which float around the inner solar system, or what we call asteroids.

Now an associate professor in the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, he studies samples of rock and dust retrieved from those space rocks — a trade that landed him a gig as deputy principal investigator of the team that received the largest grant in the UA’s history. Lauretta’s team will design OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer). This space explorer will collect at least 2 ounces of asteroid dust that might have brought minerals to Earth when it was forming 4 billion years ago. These minerals made the planet conducive for life — a culmination of Lauretta’s research passion and his work as a professor at a Research I Institution.

Daily Wildcat: What’s been happening since you secured the grant for OSIRIS-REx?

Lauretta: Since receiving the grant in June, we went through a bit of euphoria. We had finally won after seven years of planning, and then reality started to sink in. We realized what we promised to do, and now we were going to be expected to do it. So we gathered our wits and rolled up our sleeves and started to get to work.

How do you still interact with students even though you’re now devoting a large amount of time to OSIRIS-REx? Ever planning on going back to teaching full-time?

Even though my job title hasn’t changed, my responsibility has shifted enormously. OSIRIS-REx pays my bills. Even though I’m still a professor, I’m not full time. It’s a very different type of business with the project. It’s a new job, essentially.

I still have graduate students. I still advise those who are working on their Ph.D. in planetary science. I’m graduating three this year. I’m with OSIRIS-REx more than students, but we have a lot of students working on the project.

How does teaching in the classroom translate to teaching with OSIRIS-REx?

The project allows me to be more of a role model, more so than what can be done as a classroom lecturer. It’s to show them (students) that hard work and persistence pays off if you really believe in something. Plus, it’s even more exciting to give an undergraduate a job than to teach them in a classroom setting. It’s real world experience, which is invaluable.

How did the curiosity about asteroids that began years ago affect your career?

Sample return is really the next step in space exploration. Thanks to the classes I took my fifth year, that’s how I got interested in OSIRIS-REx.

Now the long-term science goal for NASA is what we’re doing here, is a sample return mission, but from a planet like Mars, which is the highest reward sample return but also much more challenging. This project is a clear step in that direction. The UA is a leader in space exploration, first with the Phoenix Mars mission and now with OSIRIS-REx.

What’s in the future for you and for the project?

After launching from Earth in 2016, it will travel for three years, and then map the surface of the asteroid for six months. After a sample site is chosen, the rover will land and then collect samples for a year to bring back for study at the UA and beyond by 2023. The day we open the sample return canister on OSIRIS-REx is going to be like the best Christmas I’ve ever had. It’s going to be the culmination of 20 years of my career and this project.

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