NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Speeds Toward Asteroid Rendezvous


Artist´s conception of OSIRIS-REx approaching asteroid Bennu

NASA’s first asteroid sampling mission launched into space at 7:05 p.m. EDT Thursday, September 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, beginning a journey that could revolutionize our understanding of the early solar system.

“Today, we celebrate a huge milestone for this remarkable mission, and for this mission team,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We’re very excited about what this mission can tell us about the origin of our solar system, and we celebrate the bigger picture of science that is helping us make discoveries and accomplish milestones that might have been science fiction yesterday, but are science facts today.”

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is designed to rendezvous with, study, and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth. Asteroids like Bennu are remnants from the formation of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists suspect that asteroids may have been a source of the water and organic molecules for the early Earth and other planetary bodies. An uncontaminated asteroid sample from a known source would enable precise analyses, providing results far beyond what can be achieved by spacecraft-based instruments or by studying meteorites.

OSIRIS-REx is one of the robotic missions identified in the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) Global Exploration Roadmap.  This mission will expand our knowledge about deep space, comets and eventually the formation of the solar system. Furthermore, the mission will demonstrate technologies and enhance experience and knowledge that will significantly contribute to the development of capabilities for future robotic and human exploration missions. The Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA’s) contribution is an advanced laser system known as the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), which will scan the surface of the asteroid to create a highly accurate, three-dimensional model of the asteroid.  The French Space Agency (CNES) is supporting this mission via the work of four co-investigators from the laboratories of the French National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS).  NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), which is pursuing its own asteroid sample return mission called Hyabusa-2, will provide each other with portions of their sample returns.

OSIRIS-REx separated from its United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 8:04 p.m. The solar arrays deployed and are now powering the spacecraft.

“With today’s successful launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft embarks on a journey of exploration to Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “I couldn’t be more proud of the team that made this mission a reality, and I can’t wait to see what we will discover at Bennu.”

In 2018, OSIRIS-REx will approach Bennu – which is the size of a small mountain – and begin an intricate dance with the asteroid, mapping and studying Bennu in preparation for sample collection. In July 2020, the spacecraft will perform a daring maneuver in which its 11-foot arm will reach out and perform a five-second “high-five” to stir up surface material, collecting at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of small rocks and dust in a sample return container. OSIRIS-REx will return the sample to Earth in September 2023, when it will then be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for examination.

The OSIRIS-REx mission will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era.

“It’s satisfying to see the culmination of years of effort from this outstanding team,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We were able to deliver OSIRIS-REx on time and under budget to the launch site, and will soon do something that no other NASA spacecraft has done – bring back a sample from an asteroid.”

Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The University of Arizona leads the science team and observation planning and processing. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the agency’s New Frontiers Program for its Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Launch and countdown management is the responsibility of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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