By Eric Swedlund –
To The Asteroid Bennu & Beyond
OSIRIS-REx − a complex and ambitious space mission designed to return sample material from an asteroid − is also a tremendous boost to Tucson’s economy and the University of Arizona’s already world-class reputation in space exploration.
The September launch of the OSIRIS-REx mission marks the second time the UA was chosen to lead a NASA mission. And while the first − the successful Phoenix Mars Lander mission launched in 2007 − carried a $386 million price tag, the OSIRIS-REx grant more than doubled that with an $800 million mission cost. A full 25 percent of the funding was directly awarded to the UA to fund mission preparations, operations and science in Tucson.
The mission builds on more than 50 years of history for the UA as a leading NASA partner, beginning with the founding of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in 1960. The OSIRIS-REx mission has a staff of about 60 full-time, high-tech positions.
The full title of the mission – Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer – outlines its goals to travel to an asteroid and collect a sample to bring back to Earth for analysis of its resources, in particular the sort of molecules that could provide insight into the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago.
“We want to understand the processes early in our solar system’s history that may have led to key molecules for the origin of life,” said Dante Lauretta, a UA professor of planetary science and the principal investigator for the entire OSIRIS-REx mission.
The spacecraft will travel to Bennu, an asteroid rich in carbon, selected because it may contain molecules important for the development of life. Bennu also is one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids, with a relatively high probability of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century.
The spacecraft is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral sometime during a 34-day window starting Sept. 8. It will begin its approach to Bennu in August 2018, then map and survey the asteroid for a year as it selects a landing site. The spacecraft will briefly touch down on the surface of the asteroid to retrieve a sample. Lauretta knows the challenges involved in making the whole sequence execute according to plan.
“We have to launch and rendezvous with the target, but the asteroid is not like a planet. Getting into orbit is a challenge,” he said. “We’ll be doing a lot of formation flying with the asteroid, a lot of proximity operations. The challenge ultimately is to fly the spacecraft right into the asteroid, grab that sample in a five second touch-and-go maneuver and then get out of there.”
A successful mission will return the asteroid sample to Earth in September 2023, and over the next two years, the science team will analyze the sample.
The scale and complexity of the mission, starting from its early proposals, means Lauretta will spend more than half his career − 21 years − working on OSIRIS-REx.
Lauretta, a Tucson native, first joined the program in 2004, when Michael Drake, then head of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, asked him to join as deputy principal investigator. Lauretta’s expertise in early solar system processes, particularly origin of life and origin of water and other volatile components, complemented Drake, an expert in extraterrestrial geology. Drake passed away in 2011, just four months after NASA awarded the mission. Today the OSIRIS-REx mission is headquartered in the Michael J. Drake Building northwest of the UA campus.
The project’s long duration ensures it will draw the attention of the scientific community at several points, from the launch, to the sample collection, to the return and beyond, as UA researchers conduct their analyses.
“When we get to the asteroid, there will be people all around the world watching what we’re up to,” Lauretta said. “This really fosters the whole notion of Tucson as a science city and a hub of innovation and space exploration. We hope to catalyze more interest and investment in our city and rally all the industry and academics based here in Tucson.”
The UA’s dedication to involving even undergraduate students in the day-to-day work on missions like OSIRIS-REx provides a crucial boost for the career prospects of those students involved.
Bradley Williams, now a systems engineer on the OSIRIS-REx camera suite, was one such student. The Californian became entranced by space science while in elementary school and chose to attend the UA specifically because of its long involvement with NASA missions.
“That was the selling point. I knew no matter what I went into, if I was doing astronomy or optical science or engineering, I would have a path to get to the space sector,” Williams said. “What I’ve learned since is the UA embraces an atmosphere and culture that allows you to make the connections you need to make the steps to the next level after graduation.”
When the OSIRIS-REx project was awarded in 2011, Williams was already working in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory as an undergraduate engineering student. He began working on the imaging portion of the project, and once he graduated in 2013, was hired as a full-time professional staff member.
As a young engineer Williams already has a resumé that sets him apart, and his position as a university employee also allows him to pursue his master’s degree. Being able to work closely with Lauretta has additional benefits.
“Having the PI co-located with the operations and instrument teams provides more than just keeping morale up among the engineers and scientists,” Williams said. “Dante provides useful insight into the key decisions being made at the project level along with providing a culture within the university that recognizes individual achievements and hard work towards mission success. This is unique because it spawns career growth, which is not always evident in private industry. It is really hard for a young engineer like myself to get lost in the crowd on this mission but rather it is easy to stand out.”
With the Phoenix Mars Lander and now OSIRIS-REx, the UA is the only university to lead two NASA missions, which Lauretta said is not only a tremendous credit to the exceptional history of space and planetary science, but a cornerstone to the next generation of advanced research.
“Having a university lead a program like this is something NASA should continue to do into the future,” he said. “We’re training the next generation workforce and it’s a phenomenal opportunity for our students.”