Three weeks after its asteroid target received a new name, NASA’s Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) has officially passed a key confirmation review and has been authorized to proceed into the spacecraft development phase. If all goes well, the seven-year, $800 million mission to retrieve a small soil sample from the asteroid Bennu and return it to Earth for analysis will rise from the launch pad in September 2016.
Last Wednesday’s review, known as Key Decision Point (KDP)-C, required NASA to examine a series of detailed project assessments, and its successful completion is a significant milestone for the mission. According to Mike Donnelly, the OSIRIS-REx project manager at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., passing the review means that “we have an executable plan to return a sample from Bennu” and added that the next challenge will be to actually execute that plan.
OSIRIS-REx will visit, study, and return to Earth a sample of an asteroid, until recently known only by its rather drab scientific name of (101955) 1999 RQ36. It was redesignated “Bennu” last month, following a naming contest which was won by 9-year-old Michael Puzio of North Carolina. Discovered in September 1999, the asteroid measures a third of a mile in diameter and takes about 1.2 years to orbit the Sun; a path which brings it close to Earth every six years, though not close enough to cause an impact. Two years after launch, in 2018, OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with Bennu and spend 505 days mapping its surface from a distance of approximately 3 miles. This will enable investigators to zero-in on a possible sampling location, and the spacecraft will approach the asteroid, extend its robotic arm, and retrieve a specimen of between 2 ounces and 4.4 pounds.
The Obama Administration’s policy for NASA is to attempt to visit and capture an asteroid and bring it into cislunar space for visitation by astronauts, perhaps as soon as 2021. The mission of OSIRIS-REx is expected to contribute enormously to the techniques and technologies needed to accomplish such a momentous feat. Since pristine, carbonaceous asteroids like Bennu are thought to represent conditions at the very dawn of our Solar System, the opportunity to deliver these primordial samples directly into the hands of scientists is expected to yield important clues about the origin and evolution of the Sun’s realm. Assuming the sample-capture process goes well, the OSIRIS-REx return capsule will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in 2023 and land at the Utah Test and Training Range.
Developed by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, together with NASA-Goddard, the spacecraft will be fabricated by Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “The entire OSIRIS-REx team has worked very hard to get to this point,” said Dante Laurettta, the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Arizona at Tucson. “We have a long way to go before we arrive at Bennu, but I have every confidence when we do, we will have built a supremely capable system to return a sample of this primitive asteroid.”
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The mission sounds about as easy as standing atop the Empire State Building with a rifle, firing a bullet, and hitting a quarter held up by someone on the Washington Monument. Obviously, for the geniuses at NASA, the extremely difficult is done immediately, the impossible just takes a little longer.