June 30, 2016 – Engineers from NASA’s Deep Space Network spent the past couple of weeks performing detailed tests of the various communications systems on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft built by Lockheed Martin.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V on September 8. The mission will travel to asteroid Bennu, make a detailed survey, and return a sample to Earth for analysis. During the mission, the spacecraft will depend on its communications systems to relay everything from its health and status, to scientific findings, back to Earth.
The recent tests were completed inside a long, single-story building at Kennedy Space Center known as MIL-71. Its name harkens back to the time when Kennedy was known as the Merritt Island Launch Annex, or MILA. Communications systems allow only three letters, so it was shortened to MIL. In much the same way, the asteroid sampling mission called OSIRIS-REx by its management is known in Deep Space Network and communications circles by its own three-letter acronym, ORX.
It takes a roomful of specialized gear to perform the testing, which calls for simulating the vast distances that signals from the spacecraft will have to traverse to reach the gigantic antennas of the Deep Space Network in California, Spain and Canberra, Australia. With dishes measuring up to 230 feet in diameter, the Earthbound communications network is geared to pick up faint transmissions from probes that are exploring the solar system.
Now that communications testing is complete, the team will head back to California to apply the results to the system to get ready for launch day. OSIRIS-REx will first communicate approximately 20 minutes after liftoff, when the spacecraft separates from the upper stage of its Atlas V rocket. Assuming that everything is nominal, the spacecraft will send a signal back to Earth before unfurling its solar arrays and heading into deep space. After that, the OSIRIS-REx team will be able to uplink commands and download data throughout the mission using the Deep Space Network.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta is the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado built the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages New Frontiers for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.