In October, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made the agency’s first attempt to collect a sample from the asteroid Bennu during a mission led by the University of Arizona.
Among those following along was assistant professor and cosmochemist Jessica Barnes, assistant professor of planetary sciences and a collaborating sample scientist on the mission. She and her colleagues at the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory were elated when the touch-and-go event succeeded. Then they worried after the mission team learned some particles were escaping the sample collector and spent two days working around the clock to secure the material.
“That was a really surreal time,” Barnes said.
Around the time Barnes learned the collector head had been closed with an abundant sample, she received more good news: Someone had made a $1.5 million gift toward sample analysis. The gift will enable the purchase of a nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometer, an instrument the analysis team will use to help find answers to fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system. The project is funded in part by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, as well as the university.
Barnes called Dante Lauretta, professor of planetary sciences and principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx, to share the news.
“I was emotional, as was Dante. To hear we have this wonderful gift that enables us to get this amazing piece of equipment – I had no idea that would happen at that time. It was just amazing,” Barnes said.
The timing was noteworthy, Lauretta said, not only because he’d just learned the sample collection was successful, but because 2020 had presented so many difficulties.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion and joy and excitement – for Jessica, for the university, for our samples, for science, for our students and staff and everybody that’s going to be involved in the continuation of this amazing scientific adventure,” he said.
The donor, who asked to remain anonymous, is a UArizona graduate who made a previous major gift so that the university’s students and faculty will have more time using the Giant Magellan Telescope when it’s completed and begins operations at its home in Chile’s Atacama Desert. This gift allocated another $500,000 in support of UArizona’s role in the GMT project as well as the $1.5 million to provide the balance required for the sample analysis instrument.
“I am immensely grateful for this donor’s vision and support of space science exploration at the University of Arizona,” said university President Robert C. Robbins. “One of the most thrilling aspects of both of these projects is realizing how many members of our faculty and staff, as well as our students, are contributing to their success. It is incredible to have a graduate continue engaging with the university and supporting these missions.”
The donor’s decision to contribute to the OSIRIS-REx mission arose partly from admiration for Barnes’ expertise in sample analysis and from an interest in supporting an early-career female scientist, said Elliott Cheu, interim dean of the College of Science.
Barnes joined the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in 2019 following a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She received her doctorate from The Open University in the U.K.
The College of Science is fortunate to be able to attract world-leading faculty, said Cheu, who will continue as interim dean until June, when Carmala Garzione will become permanent dean.
“When donors step up to become partners in discovery, they empower those researchers to realize their potential and accelerate our progress. This remarkable gift ensures we can make the most of our team’s knowledge and the sample so many have worked long and hard to retrieve,” Cheu said.
Private gifts are often a crucial component of university research projects, said John-Paul Roczniak, president and CEO of the UArizona Foundation.
“This gift helps accelerate scientific breakthroughs. I’m grateful to this donor and all our supporters who make generous investments in research with far-reaching consequences for society,” Roczniak said.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth in September 2023, with the sample capsule touching down at the Utah Test and Training Range. Following initial identification and processing at the Johnson Space Center, a team led by Lauretta will begin detailed analysis at UArizona. The goal is to explore the solar system’s past and secure its future, according to Lauretta.
The nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometer allows investigation to the nanometer scale, Barnes said. She expects the instrument to provide a wealth of information over many years without destroying the samples, thereby extending the discovery timeline.
“Depending on how much material we brought back from Bennu, scientists and students could be analyzing those materials a decade or even two or three decades into the future,” Barnes said.