NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security - Regolith Explorer asteroid sample return mission. Credit: NASA/Goddard

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer asteroid sample return mission.
Credit: NASA/Goddard

 

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer asteroid sample return mission is best called — for breathing purposes — as OSIRIS-REx). It is the first U.S. mission to collect a sample of an asteroid and return it to Earth for study.

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to be launched on September 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch window opens at 7:05pm EDT and lasts for approximately 120 minutes.

OSIRIS-REx undergoing pre-launch checkout. Credit: NASA/KSC

OSIRIS-REx undergoing pre-launch checkout.
Credit: NASA/KSC

The big day

“With only 39 days to go until we launch OSIRIS-REx our schedule is packed with activities,” explains Dante Lauretta, a professor of planetary science in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. He is the Principal Investigator for the NASA OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission.

“The big day!” is near at hand. “If the weather is clear and we don’t have any wayward aircraft or boats in restricted areas,” the Atlas V will send OSIRIS-REx on its way to Bennu and back, Lauretta notes via a July 31 blog.

“If launch is delayed – we can try again on September 9. Our last opportunity to launch this year is October 12 so we have plenty of chances to get off the Earth,” Lauretta explains.

Hit list

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is traveling to Bennu, a carbonaceous asteroid whose regolith may record the earliest history of our solar system. Bennu may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth’s oceans.

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This asteroid is also on the “hit list” – that is it’s one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids, as it has a relatively high probability of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century.

OSIRIS-REx will determine Bennu’s physical and chemical properties, which will be critical to know in the event of an impact mitigation mission.

On the more cheerful side, asteroids like Bennu contain natural resources such as water, organics, and precious metals. In the future, these asteroids may one day fuel the exploration of the solar system by robotic and crewed spacecraft.

Site inspection

If the launch of the spacecraft goes as planned, in August 2018 the approach by OSIRIS-REx’s to Bennu will begin, rendezvousing with the space rock.

The spacecraft will begin a detailed survey of Bennu two months after slowing to encounter Bennu.

This “site inspection” process will last over a year, and, as part of it, OSIRIS-REx will map potential sample sites.

Touchy-feely technology

In picking the final site, the spacecraft will then briefly touch the surface of Bennu to retrieve a sample. The sampling arm will make contact with the surface of Bennu for about five seconds, during which it will release a burst of nitrogen gas.

The Touch-and-Go Sample Arm Mechanism (TAGSAM) is tested in a Lockheed Martin facility, developer of the hardware. The TAGSAM arm will be responsible for collecting a sample from Bennu’s surface. Credit: Lockheed Martin Corporation

The Touch-and-Go Sample Arm Mechanism (TAGSAM) is tested in a Lockheed Martin facility, developer of the hardware. The TAGSAM arm will be responsible for collecting a sample from Bennu’s surface.
Credit: Lockheed Martin Corporation

This touchy-feely procedure will cause rocks and surface soil to be stirred up and captured in the sampler head.

The spacecraft has enough nitrogen to allow three sampling attempts, to collect between 60 and 2000 grams 2–70 ounces (60–2000) grams.

Back home

In March 2021, the window for departure from the asteroid will open, and OSIRIS-REx will begin its return journey to Earth, arriving two and a half years later in September 2023.

The sample return capsule will separate from the spacecraft and enter the Earth’s atmosphere. It will be slowed by a heat shield and then a parachute, landing at the Utah Test and Training Range.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company built OSIRIS-REx at its facility near Denver. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is providing overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages New Frontiers for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

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