To Catch an Asteroid

Successful OSIRIS-REx Mission Makes Rock Stars of UArizona Researchers

By Dave Perry

By now, the world knows.

On Sept. 24, the spacecraft at the working end of the OSIRIS-REx mission to and from the asteroid Bennu dropped a larger-than-expected bundle of otherworldly rock and particles onto the Utah desert, completing a University of Arizona-led journey of more than seven years and 4.4 billion miles. 

What might get lost is this:

OSIRIS-REx’s charred capsule, carrying perhaps a half-cup of matter, floated gently beneath a parachute to touch lightly upon the Earth that Sunday morning. No skid marks, no hard knocks. Quite the soft shot, considering the speeding capsule was released from 63,000 miles – one-third the distance to the Moon – above Earth.

It fell close to an access road, no less.

“Boy, did we stick that landing,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and UArizona regents professor of planetary sciences, “and that is pretty much what OSIRIS-REx has done consistently.”

Indeed. The mission, begun under the leadership of the late Michael Drake, director of UArizona’s sky-breaking Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, then guided by Lauretta, has consistently overcome, and overachieved.

What NASA proposed to do with Bennu – fly to it, observe it, poke it, collect material, and bring it back to Earth – “was really outlandish,” said Erika Hamden, director of the UArizona Space Institute. “There were so many different phases and components, things that have to work correctly, and unrelated to the previous thing that had to work correctly.

“It shows the confidence NASA has in the University of Arizona,” Hamden said. Based on its long history with UArizona, NASA knew “we will perform our role to the highest quality possible.” And it did.

“We are world class,” said Carmala “Carmie “Garzione, dean of the UArizona College of Science. She ticked off current UArizona missions now in the news – OSIRIS-REx, its subsequent OSIRIS-APEX, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope – as examples. “I would argue the breadth of our influence is unparalleled, in terms of the broad range of space-related research and development. We are the best.”

“OSIRIS-REx is many things,” said UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins, who was in Utah for this touch-down off the gridiron. “Amazing science and engineering, exploration of our solar system, a beginning of decades of scientific discovery, and, for all of us, a reminder of what the University of Arizona community can do when we dream big.”

NASA’s first asteroid sample retrieval, with a total price tag of $1.16 billion, is an “astonishing achievement,” Robbins continued. “It’s been the work of many here at the University of Arizona and at our partner organizations.”

And it demonstrates — “Space is truly Wildcat Country,” Robbins said.

A Sample That Runneth Over

NASA and UArizona hoped OSIRIS-REx could collect 60 grams of asteroid material.

When the capsule was first opened at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, investigators were thrilled to find bonus asteroid material covering the outside of its collector head, lid, and base. They removed 70.3 grams of Bennu, about 2.5 ounces, beyond what’s inside the sealed container. When its contents are revealed – and in late October scientists were struggling to get it open — the total sample might exceed 130 grams of dust and rocks. As much as 70% of it is going to be stashed in Houston, for research years from now.

“We’re very excited about the volume of material we have,” Lauretta said. And, he nearly exclaimed, “we’re thrilled with the results.”

Initial studies of the 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid sample show evidence of water and high-carbon content, which together could indicate the building blocks of life on Earth may be found within.

A 4.7% carbon figure is “on the high end for carbonaceous materials” in comparison with other studied meteorites, said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s what we were hoping for, and we’re delighted to explore that over the course of the next two years, and the next decade.”

Now begins “a new era of exploration …. the era of sample science,” said Makenzie Lystrup, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

“There is still so much science to come,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “Science like we’ve never seen before.” That inquiry will be conducted by as many as 200 scientists worldwide, exploring the origins of the OSIRIS-REx sample with powerful tools, some of them created and housed on the UArizona campus.

“Ancient secrets” may be locked within, Lauretta said. When they are revealed, scientists may glean “profound insights into the origins of our solar system. It’s “just the tip of the cosmic iceberg.”

UArizona Assistant Professor Pierre Haenecour, with the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, is one of those cosmic iceberg researchers. He has a quote from Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic Les Miserables on his Curriculum Vitae. It reads:

“Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of the two has the grander view?”

An Emotional Landing

No particles from Bennu were spilled on the Utah desert that September Sunday. Tears, and emotions, poured forth.

“Today caps the end of an almost 20-year adventure for me,” Lauretta said. In February 2004, representatives from Lockheed Martin came to Tucson and said “they were thinking up an asteroid sample return mission, and they wanted UofA to take the scientific leadership role.

“It seemed like magic,” Lauretta recalled. “… They said, ‘Pick an asteroid, Dante,’ and we’ll bring samples back to the Earth for you to study in your laboratory.”

Drake was the original principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx before his death in 2011. Lauretta led the mission when the spacecraft was launched Sept. 8, 2016. It was guided to Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018. The search for a safe sample-collection site began in 2019 and concluded with the sample gathering Oct. 20, 2020. The return trip home began on May 10, 2021.

The journey’s end was nerve-wracking and emotional, said Garzione, who also was in Utah that day.

“There were hundreds of people there who have played a significant role in this mission,” she said. “All of them were on the edge of their seats, making sure this last step gets accomplished smoothly. The tension, the anxiety, the excitement were palpable.”

When it touched down, “you can’t imagine all these people releasing their anxiety” in an eruption of cheers and tears, Garzione said. “You felt decades of anticipation suddenly released at that moment.”

“As soon as I heard ‘main chute,’ that’s when I just emotionally let it go,” Lauretta said. “Tears were streaming down my eyes, and I thought, ‘That’s the only thing I needed to hear.’ From this point on, we know what to do, we’re home, we’re safe, we did it.”

The World Again Watches Tucson

How much interest is there in OSIRIS-REx and its bite of Bennu? Consider that an Oct. 11 media call run by NASA from Houston drew journalists from England, Canada, Qatar, Russia, Ireland and the U.S.

The world knows about OSIRIS-REx. The mission was “an incredible success,” Garzione said.

NASA agreed.

“A major shout-out to this incredible team,” NASA’s Nicky Fox, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, told the media. “There was nothing about OSIRIS-REx that was too big. It’s been an incredible, incredible job. On behalf of NASA, thank you, OSIRIS-REx.”

Pictured above – Principal investigator for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission and University of Arizona Regents Professor of Planetary Sciences Dante Lauretta (Photo: Chris Richards/University Communications)
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