New Mission Helmed by Former Student of UArizona’s Dante Lauretta
By Dave Perry
In 2005, Dani Mendoza DellaGiustina was a second-year physics student at the University of Arizona when she enrolled in a class about asteroids taught by then assistant professor Dante Lauretta.
“We were both just getting started,” DellaGiustina remembers.
Lauretta, who would become principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission to Bennu and back, sparked DellaGiustina’s “foray into studying asteroids.” Soon, she was working on OSIRIS-REx. Then, after earning master’s and doctorate degrees, she became a UArizona associate professor, returned to the OSIRIS-REx team, and eventually became the mission’s deputy principal investigator.
Now, DellaGiustina, 37, is leading the spacecraft’s nearly $200 million, NASA-funded “bonus” trip to the near-Earth asteroid Apophis. She is the principal investigator of OSIRIS-APophis EXplorer, or OSIRIS-APEX. The next frontier.
With the firing of redirecting thrusters, the spacecraft’s journey toward Apophis began 20 minutes after it dropped its bundle of Bennu above the Utah desert on Sept. 24. In early 2029, after millions of miles and two trips around the sun, the spacecraft should approach the 1,100-foot-wide asteroid.
On April 13, 2029, Apophis is expected to approach within 20,000 miles of Earth, 1/10th the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Apophis may be visible to the naked eye as a streaking light in the night sky.
OSIRIS-APEX will be right there with it. For 18 months, scientists will learn all they can about this rocky, metallic object, using cameras, laser beams, highly technical spectral instruments and, maybe, fire the spacecraft’s thrusters just above Apophis’ surface to stir up dust and rock and reveal more about its makeup.
It’s far from lost on DellaGiustina that her own journey began as a student, led her to the No. 2 position on a mission to harvest asteroid material, and now places her at the helm of an adventure humanity has never been.
“I am an example of how this pipeline can work,” she said.
UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins said OSIRIS-APEX will “continue to demonstrate to the world – especially students who want to study what lies beyond our planet – that the University of Arizona is a leader in space sciences.”
“OSIRIS-APEX is a manifestation of a core objective of our mission to enable the next generation of leadership in space exploration,” Lauretta said. “She is strongly committed to bringing the future generations along with her on that team. I couldn’t be prouder of Dani and the APEX team.”
DellaGiustina’s rise to principal investigator is “not surprising, given how amazing our college is at training students,” said Carmala “Carmie” Garzione, dean of the College of Science at UArizona. Faculty, “especially in physics, earth and space sciences, are eager to work with undergraduates.”
For DellaGiustina, it’s very important that students “really feel like they are in touch with, and a part of, the incredible work that we’re doing,” and that they understand “the big implications this work has.”
She spends long hours in many meetings, where she learns, then communicates with others. Her OSIRIS-REx experience taught her “how to run an integrated team” on an incredibly complicated mission, with skilled, focused, subject-matter experts managing advanced technology aboard a very complex machine.
“We want to make sure everyone feels valued, that their voices are heard, that when we make big decisions, we make them collectively,” she said. The goal is “to come together and pull some pretty incredible things off, given our wildly different levels of expertise.”
Apophis, discovered in 2004 by scientists observing from Kitt Peak, is an “infamous” asteroid, DellaGiustina said, making it an ideal choice for study. Initially, scientists believed Apophis had a chance to strike the Earth relatively soon. Further observation and tracking now show Earth is safe from the asteroid for at least 100 years.
The fact OSIRIS-APEX is even feasible “is the mark of the incredible success of OSIRIS-REx,” Garzione said. It is truly remarkable the spacecraft has “enough fuel to spare for a second mission. It’s two missions for a little tiny bit more than the price of one.”
DellaGiustina spends “a lot of time thinking about these little asteroids, and what they mean, and about our place in the solar system,” she said. “A lot of my mental bandwidth is off planet.”
That thinking takes place at UArizona, where her curiosity about asteroids was ignited in a classroom nearly 20 years ago.
Pictured above – OSIRIS-APEX pursues asteroid Apophis during its exceptionally close flyby of Earth on April 13, 2029. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab