Spacecraft Assembly Begins for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission

Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard
Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard

The first United States mission in history to launch a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, retrieve samples, and return those samples back to Earth for study just passed a big milestone in its development this week. NASA’s Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer mission—or OSIRIS-REx for short—has been nearly four years in the making, and this week the mission was given the green light to transition from design and development to testing and assembly of the spacecraft itself.

The key decision meeting was held at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C., on March 30, with a series of independent reviews covering the technical health, schedule, and cost of the project all discussed in detail. Known as Key Decision Point-D (KDP-D), the milestone represents the official transition from the mission’s design and development stage to delivery of systems, completion of the spacecraft’s structure, and testing and integration of the spacecraft’s sensitive science instruments.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft core structure is successfully lowered and mated to the hydrazine propellant tank and boat tail assembly at Lockheed Martin, Denver, Colo. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft core structure is successfully lowered and mated to the hydrazine propellant tank and boat tail assembly at Lockheed Martin, Denver, Colo. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

This is an exciting time for the OSIRIS-REx team,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-Rex at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “After almost four years of intense design efforts, we are now proceeding with the start of flight system assembly. I am grateful for the hard work and team effort required to get us to this point.”

The System Integration Review—where the plan for integrating the scientific instrumentation, electrical and communication systems, and navigation systems are all looked over—was completed at Lockheed Martin’s Littleton, Colo., facility last month.

Launch and test operations officially began March 27, marking a critical stage of the program know as ATLO, or assembly, test and launch operations. Over the next six months technicians with Lockheed will install the subsystems on the main spacecraft structure, comprising avionics, power, telecomm, thermal systems, and guidance, navigation, and control.

The spacecraft structure has been integrated with the propellant tank and propulsion system and is ready to begin system integration in the Lockheed Martin highbay,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “The payload suite of cameras and sensors is well into its environmental test phase and will be delivered later this summer/fall.”

Building a spacecraft that will bring back samples from an asteroid is a unique opportunity,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “We can feel the momentum to launch building. We’re installing the electronics in the next few weeks and shortly after we’ll power-on the spacecraft for the first time.”

The seven-year mission is scheduled to launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V 411 rocket in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., doing so under the terms of a $183.5 million contract, which includes payload processing, integrated services, telemetry, and other launch support requirements.

The total cost of the OSIRIS-REx mission is upwards of $800 million.

The mission’s target is asteroid 101955 Bennu, named after the heron-like firebird of ancient Egyptian lore through a contest won by 9-year-old Michael Puzio of North Carolina in 2013. Discovered in September 1999, the asteroid is a third of a mile in diameter and takes about 1.2 years to circle the Sun. Its path brings it close to Earth every six years, though not close enough to pose any risk of a collision.

In 2018, two years after launching from Earth, OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with Bennu and spend 505 days mapping its surface from a distance of 3 miles, courtesy of five instruments that will remotely evaluate the surface and enable investigators to zero-in on a possible sampling location. If all goes well, the spacecraft will approach the asteroid, extend its robotic arm, and retrieve a sample of between 2.1 ounces (60 grams) and 4.4 pounds for return back to Earth in 2023.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is currently carrying out the Rosetta mission, which successfully landed a spacecraft on the surface of Comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko recently—a first in the history of human exploration. Although the lander itself, Philae, only survived for a few days, it sent back priceless data, and there is still hope that the lander may “wake up” as the comet gets closer to the Sun on its trek across the Solar System. The Rosetta orbiter, however, is carrying out its own mission from above.

VIDEO: Asteroids and the OSIRIS-REx Mission

NASA’s explored comets too, as was seen with the 12-year-long Stardust mission, which launched in 1999. Stardust explored asteroid Annefrank and comets Wild 2 and Tempel 1. The spacecraft also traveled halfway to Jupiter to collect particle samples from the comet Wild 2, and returned to Earth’s vicinity afterwards to drop off a sample return capsule for study.

The space agency also carried out the Deep Impact mission in 2005, shooting an 820-pound copper bullet “impactor” into the face of Comet Tempel 1 so scientists could—for the first time ever—study the pristine material from the comet’s interior.

NASA is also currently carrying out the Dawn mission, which became humanity’s first mission to orbit a dwarf planet when it was successfully captured by Texas-sized Ceres’ gravity on March 6. Operating for seven years and counting, on a journey that has traveled over 3 billion miles from home, Dawn previously investigated the asteroid Vesta, orbiting the Arizona-sized asteroid for 14 months before pushing on for Ceres.

The mission of OSIRIS-REx is expected to contribute enormously to the techniques and technologies needed to accomplish such feats as NASA’s planned Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which aims to send a crew of astronauts to a nearby asteroid to capture a boulder and put it into orbit around the Moon for study next decade. Such a mission, while controversial, would be the furthest such mission of any human space mission in history to date.

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 as well.

We have a long way to go before we arrive at Bennu,” says Laurettta. “But I have every confidence when we do, we will have built a supremely capable system to return a sample of this primitive asteroid.”

 Article written by Mike Killian and Ben Evans.


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