Drake began pushing for the U of A to win the asteroid-sampling mission after it was proposed by aerospace company Lockheed Martin and NASA in 2004. The university's concept-study report initially was rejected in favor of another school's plan in the competitive process that Lauretta likened to the NCAA basketball tournament. Except it goes on for years.

"2004 to 2011 was all proposal writing, concept development, sales pitching, and marketing to [NASA] to convince it this was the best mission to fly," Lauretta says of the U of A's efforts. The space agency agreed to let the university lead OSIRIS-REx in May 2011, four months before Drake died from a prolonged illness. Two more years of planning ensued. Finally, in May 2013, LPL's proposal was approved and green-lighted for a 2016 launch.

More than 100 people are working on the project in the Drake building, more than half of them students.

Astronomer Jay Melosh shows off a model of comet Tempel 1.
Courtesy of Jay Melosh
Astronomer Jay Melosh shows off a model of comet Tempel 1.
A novelization of the 1978 made-for-TV movie about a comet impact that destroys Phoenix.
A novelization of the 1978 made-for-TV movie about a comet impact that destroys Phoenix.

On December 9, Lauretta hung a digital timer on the wall of the building's front office and began a 999-day countdown.

Assuming all goes well, the spacecraft will launch in about two years, arrive at Bennu in 2018, perform its nail-biting touch-and-grab maneuver sometime in 2019, and deliver its package back to Earth in 2023, after which the university is slated to analyze the sample for two more years.

"This defines my career," says Lauretta, 43. He has a wife and two young boys, ages 5 and 7. "We're talking 22 years from concept to end of mission. I don't know what'll be left in me by then."

He's an energetic type, though — and asteroids will be one of the hottest tickets in space exploration for the foreseeable future. Several other asteroid missions also are in progress.

NASA's half-billion-dollar unmanned Dawn mission, which left orbit from the asteroid Vesta in 2012, is expected to go into orbit in 2015 around Ceres. These are the two biggest objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, with diameters of about 300 and 600 miles, respectively.

The Rosetta spacecraft, a $1 billion project of the European Space Agency, was launched in 2004 and flew by asteroids in 2008 and 2010. It just came out of hibernation on January 20 and is preparing to orbit Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May before it drops a lander on the comet's surface on November 11.

Meanwhile, concept plans are proceeding on a bold project announced by President Obama in 2010 to use a robotic craft to capture a small asteroid and place it in the moon's orbit before astronauts travel there to examine it sometime between 2021 and 2025.

The missions will expand scientific knowledge and usher in an age in which asteroids would be used as stepping stones for missions to Mars and beyond or even be mined commercially.

OSIRIS-REx will help bring about this new era — with the bonus that someday it might actually save lives.


The stubby spacecraft will start taking pictures on its approach while Bennu still is just a dot in the black of space. Then, from a distance of 200 meters from the asteroid, it will take extreme close-ups that can resolve pebbles on the asteroid's surface.

Three rugged one-megapixel cameras under construction in the Drake building are among the instruments the spacecraft will carry. Another is a mineral spotter being designed by a group led by Philip Christensen at Arizona State University.

One of the most anticipated findings has to do with the Yarkovsky effect on the asteroid. Because asteroids rotate like planets and moons, one side always is either heating in the sun or cooling in the shade. The heat thrown back into space from the surface acts as a thruster. An asteroid's gravity is so weak that even this tiny force has a measurable effect on the body's orbit around the sun. Lack of knowledge about the effect adds uncertainty about the precise orbit of a potentially hazardous object and whether it will hit Earth.

Six close flybys of Bennu are planned to map the perfect touchdown spot. When NASA experts sign off on the landing zone, OSIRIS-REx will descend toward the surface for its grand performance.

Bennu's gravity is so weak that walking on it would be impossible even if the surface were compact enough for a stroll. A single step would launch an astronaut out of the asteroid's orbital influence and into deep space.

Using tiny bursts from its rocket thrusters, the spacecraft is to descend to the asteroid's surface.

The plan is for the end of the robot arm to touch the asteroid for about five seconds. A gust of nitrogen gas will stir up gravel and suck it into a small chamber, to be deposited into a return capsule. When the spacecraft approaches Earth's atmosphere a few years after contact with Bennu, the capsule would be ejected, fall to Earth, and get picked up by scientists. After ejecting the capsule, the spacecraft is to permanently orbit the sun.

Researchers can't wait to get their hands on what will be the first sample brought back from an asteroid, composed mostly of carbon-based material rather than metals or rock. A Japanese spacecraft, the Hayabusa, returned dust collected from stony asteroid Itokawa (which has no risk of Earth collision) in 2010.

Analyzing the sample is where the "spectral interpretation" part of the spacecraft's name comes in. There are up to 800,000 known asteroids, but most will be studied only with a telescope, of course. Bennu has been studied more than most.

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16 comments
zengphoo
zengphoo

OH wow, 2018 is not that far wawy at all man.


www.RealAnon.tk

Ian Calder Drummond
Ian Calder Drummond

I just moved away from Arizona after 14 years And I am being an asshole.

Lisa Kaiser
Lisa Kaiser

Ian, UA has been involved with the NASA Mars missions, its mirror labs creates mirrors of all the major telescopes around the world, its astronomy program is world-renowned.

Toby San
Toby San

The 'redness' of Maricopa county vs. the 'blueness' of Tucson will be apparent.

Brandon Doyle
Brandon Doyle

If that hits us the grid is gonna go down. Then my dad better watch his back. #souppunch

Jason Stafford
Jason Stafford

Good thing its Arizona and not ASU. Though they could launch a bunch of piss drunk frat boys into the meteor and try an explode it that way.

Geary Morris
Geary Morris

They will intentionally direct it to hit ASU Stadium ;-)

Kit Hunn
Kit Hunn

Can't wait for the slew of comments from Phoenicians attempting to bash Tucson without realising that UofA is involved, if not leading, every major NASA mission.

Ian Calder Drummond
Ian Calder Drummond

Great. We are counting on a college in Arizona to save us ? The professors will probably get drunk in the middle of the project.

 
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