The first United States spacecraft in history intended for a mission to retrieve samples from an asteroid and return them back to Earth for study is now another big step closer to the launch pad. NASA’s Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer mission—or OSIRIS-REx for short—has been over four years in the making, and this week the spacecraft completed assembly at Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems facilities near Denver, Colo., officially ending its design and assembly stage.
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., followed by a two-year cruise and arrival at Asteroid Bennu in August 2018 to begin observations and studies, which will include extensive mapping, searching for other possible satellites, and finding an optimal sample site. The big payoff for the mission, however, will come in 2023, when OSIRIS-Rex returns a capsule back to Earth containing a sample of the carbon-rich Bennu.
“This is an exciting time for the program, as we now have a completed spacecraft and the team gets to test drive it, in a sense, before we actually fly it to Bennu,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “The environmental test phase is an important time in the mission, as it will reveal any issues with the spacecraft and instruments, while here on Earth, before we send it into deep space.”
The mission’s System Integration Review—where the plan for integrating the scientific instrumentation, electrical and communication systems, and navigation systems are all looked over—was completed last February, and a series of independent reviews covering the technical health, schedule, and cost of the project were all discussed in-depth at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. on March 30. Known as Key Decision Point-D (KDP-D), the milestone meeting represented the official transition from the OSIRIS-REx 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.
Launch and test operations officially began March 27, marking a critical stage of the program know as ATLO, or assembly, test and launch operations, and in July NASA announced that the spacecraft had completed a critical Mission Operations Review (MOR), administered at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and declared the mission still on track for a scheduled September 2016 launch.
The spacecraft’s suite of three cameras, known as OCAMS (OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite), were delivered to Lockheed from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in late-August for installation to the spacecraft.
With the spacecraft now assembled the focus turns to the next five months, which will put OSIRIS-REx through a series of rigorous tests to simulate the vacuum, vibration, and extreme temperatures it will experience throughout the life of its mission.
“OSIRIS-REx is entering environmental testing on schedule, on budget and with schedule reserves,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA Goddard. “This allows us to have flexibility if any concerns arise during final launch preparations.”
Thermal vacuum tests, launch acoustics tests, separation and deployment shock tests, vibration tests, and electromagnetic interference and compatibility tests are just a few examples what’s ahead for the spacecraft in the near-term.
“We now move on to test the entire flight system over the range of environmental conditions that will be experienced on the journey to Bennu and back,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “This phase is critical to mission success, and I am confident that we have built the right system for the job.”
OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to ship from Lockheed in Colorado to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida next May, where it will undergo final preparations for launch.
The mission’s target, asteroid Bennu, was 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.
Upon arrival OSIRIS-REx will spend 505 days mapping Bennu’s surface from a distance of three 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.
VIDEO: Asteroids and the OSIRIS-REx Mission
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—a first in the history of human exploration. However, neither Rosetta or its lander, Philae, are capable of returning to samples to Earth.
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.
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