Asteroid That Might Hit Earth Next Century to Be Visited by U of A Spacecraft in 2018

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"Chelyabinsk was probably the best thing we could have asked for," he says. "There were no deaths, but it was close enough to scare people."

Tracking asteroids such as 2014 AA is crucial to helping people move quickly from identification of an Earth-bound rock to figuring out exactly where it will land, Larson says. The whole concept of sky surveys is to "give us time to deflect . . . large objects," he says.

Although Earthlings haven't figured out how to deflect large asteroids just yet, advance warning that one is headed toward a city would give inhabitants time to flee, Larson says.

OSIRIS-REx, the heavily contrived acronym of the U of A project, has a nice ring to it. Osiris was the name the ancient Egyptians gave to their god of the dead. What the acronym stands for is harder to swallow: "Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer."

The project comes as part of a long line of U of A-assisted space missions and asteroid hunting. The university began a serious search for hazardous asteroids at Kitt Peak beginning in 1980 and had important roles in such deep-space explorers as the Voyager spacecraft and Mars probes.

The Kuiper Belt, a collection past the orbit of Neptune, takes its name from U of A astronomer Gerard Kuiper. Michael Drake, another legend in the field, was the university's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory director from 1994 until his death in 2011 and served as principal investigator to the OSIRIS-REx program before Lauretta.

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.

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.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.