Imagine parallel parking a 15-passenger van into just two to three parking spaces surrounded by two-story boulders. On Oct. 20, a University of Arizona-led NASA mission 16 years in the making will attempt the astronomical equivalent more than 200 million miles away.
A NASA mission called OSIRIS-REx will soon attempt to touch the surface of an asteroid and collect loose rubble.
Watch the sample collection “Touch-And-Go” maneuver Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 5 p.m. ET in the player above.
OSIRIS-REx is the United States’ first asteroid sample return mission, aiming to collect and carry a pristine, unaltered sample from an asteroid back to Earth for scientific study. The spacecraft will attempt to touch the surface of the asteroid Bennu, which is hurtling through space at 63,000 miles per hour. If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will deploy an 11-foot-long robotic arm called TAGSAM – Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism – and spend about 10 seconds collecting at least two ounces of loose rubble from the asteroid. The spacecraft, monitored remotely by a team of scientists and engineers, will then stow away the sample and begin its return to Earth, scheduled for 2023.
As senior vice president for research and innovation at UArizona and a mechanical engineer with a long career in space systems engineering, I believe this milestone for OSIRIS-REx captures perfectly the spirit of research and innovation, the careful balance of problem-solving and perseverance, of obstacle and opportunity.
What Bennu can teach us
In 2004, Michael Drake, then head of the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory; his protégé, Dante Lauretta, then a UArizona assistant professor of planetary science; and experts from Lockheed Martin and NASA discussed the very earliest concept of the OSIRIS-REx mission and what it might achieve.
Asteroids are relics of the earliest materials that formed our solar system, and studying such a sample might allow scientists to answer fundamental questions about the origins of the solar system. Further, Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid with possible risk of impacting the Earth in the late 2100s, so the mission also is exploring ways in which such a collision might be avoided.
Perhaps, though, the most ambitious goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission is resource identification – the “RI” in OSIRIS. This means, essentially, mapping the chemical properties of Bennu to learn, among other things, about the potential for mining asteroids to produce rocket fuel – a notion which, in 2004, was far ahead of its time.
NASA selected UArizona to lead the mission in 2011, with Drake at the helm. Lauretta, a first-generation college student and UArizona alumnus, took over when Drake died that year and continues to lead OSIRIS-REx today. He would unquestionably make his predecessor proud.
While OSIRIS-REx is the first NASA mission to attempt to collect a sample from an asteroid, the scientific and technological knowledge requisite of such a mission is the result of decades of prior exploration. In the early 1990s, NASA’s Galileo flew past the asteroids Gaspra and Ida. NEAR Shoemaker was the