Lockheed Martin-Built OSIRIS-REx Launches To Asteroid Bennu

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was successfully launched on Sept. 8 at 7:05 pm. ET on an Atlas V rocket form Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was successfully launched on Sept. 8 at 5:05 pm. MT on an Atlas V rocket form Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

September 9, 2016 – NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V-411 rocket on September 8, at 5:05 p.m. MDT. The spacecraft is now on a trajectory to reach Asteroid Bennu in August 2018.

“We are honored to be chosen by NASA to launch this historic mission,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Custom Services. “Thank you to our NASA customer and mission partners for the outstanding teamwork and attention to detail as we successfully started OSIRIS-Rex on its seven-year journey to Bennu.”

Burning a combination of refined kerosene called RP-1 and liquid oxygen and carrying a single solid-fueled booster, the first stage of the ULA Atlas V pushed the spacecraft through the dense lower layers of the atmosphere until the Centaur upper stage took over, propelling OSIRIS-REx faster and higher. About 59 minutes after launch, the spacecraft separated from the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fueled second stage rocket. Soon after, it autonomously deployed its two solar arrays and turned on its telecommunications radio. Initial communication with the spacecraft was obtained by the mission’s flight operations team at Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ facility near Denver at 6:08 p.m. MDT.

“Initial data from the spacecraft show that it’s healthy and is on its proper trajectory,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx spacecraft program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “Solar array deployment and signal acquisition are the first critical events, and even though we’ve tested them extensively in Denver, it’s wonderful to see the spacecraft performing these smoothly in the initial minutes of its mission.”

OSIRIS-Rex will make a swing by Earth next year to gain a gravity assist that will accelerate it even faster to reach Bennu, where it will spend two years surveying and mapping the asteroid in unprecedented detail. Then, in a robotic first, the spacecraft will reach out its mechanical arm and take a sample of the asteroid.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will perform the first dedicated NASA mission to return a pristine sample of material from an asteroid. The mission team has specifically targeted an asteroid that is carbonaceous, which means that the sample is likely to contain organic molecules similar to those that seeded life on Earth. The return to Earth of pristine samples with known geologic context will enable precise analyses that can’t be duplicated by spacecraft-based instruments. Such samples do not currently exist on Earth and could provide knowledge about the origins of life.

“This exciting and successful launch highlights the tireless efforts of the entire OSIRIS-REx team across many organizations,” said Wanda Sigur, vice president and general manager of Civil Space at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “Sample return of material from out in our solar system is one of the hardest, yet most rewarding types of space science missions, and our team is delighted to help NASA and the OSIRIS-REx team begin the flight to Bennu.”

OSIRIS-REx draws from a long successful history of previous Lockheed Martin-built orbiters and planetary spacecraft, while incorporating innovative technologies that make this sample return mission possible. The OSIRIS-REx structures and subsystems can be traced to MAVEN, Juno and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The sample return capsule comes directly from the Stardust comet sample return mission. This heritage brings known performance, reliability and lower cost to the mission.

The specific composition of the asteroid is unknown, so in order to collect a sample from its surface, Lockheed Martin developed an innovative first-of-its-kind sample collection method and hardware. The Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) is an elegantly-simple device that acts as a “reverse vacuum,” blowing compressed nitrogen gas to stir up regolith (soil) from Bennu and collecting it in a special ring-shaped canister. It will collect between 60 grams (about 4 tablespoons of sugar) and 2,000 grams (nearly a 5 lb. bag of sugar) of material.

Engineer Jim Harris holds his invention, TAGSAM, which will collect a sample of the asteroid by touching the surface and spraying a burst of nitrogen gas to push the regolith into the round sample chamber. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

Engineer Jim Harris holds his invention, TAGSAM, which will collect a sample of the asteroid by touching the surface and spraying a burst of nitrogen gas to push the regolith into the round sample chamber. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

With the sample stored safely in the sample return capsule, the spacecraft will speed away from the asteroid on a path back to Earth. As it nears Earth’s atmosphere seven years from now, the sample return capsule, equipped with a heat shield, will detach from the main spacecraft and enter Earth’s atmosphere. The heat shield will protect the sample from the searing temperatures it’ll experience on re-entry and a parachute will slow the capsule so it can be retrieved from a site in Utah. The sample will then be catalogued and a portion of it will be distributed to laboratories throughout the world. The majority of the sample will be housed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Lockheed Martin designed and built the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, sampling system and the sample return capsule at its Space Systems facilities in Littleton, Colorado. In addition, the company will operate the flight system from its Mission Support Area from launch until the asteroid samples are returned in 2023.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft includes Solar Array Drive Assemblies (SADAs) built by another Colorado company, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). SNC’s SADAs will keep the two large solar arrays directed at the sun over its seven-year-mission, allowing them to generate power for the five scientific exploration instruments and sample collection devise on board the spacecraft.

“SNC has now supported all three NASA New Frontiers program missions – providing thermal control systems for New Horizons and Juno, and now mechanical systems on OSIRIS-REx,” said John Roth, vice president of business development for SNC’s Space Systems business area. “We’re honored to work with organizations like Lockheed Martin and NASA, continuing our long heritage of support to solar system exploration.”

SNC has provided mechanisms for over 70 NASA missions in the last 25 years, ranging from near-Earth to deep space missions.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt provides overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The University of Arizona leads the science team and observation planning and processing. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages New Frontiers for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Launch and countdown management is the responsibility of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder are also involved in the mission.

This is ULA’s eighth launch in 2016 and the 111th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006. ULA’s next launch is the Atlas V WorldView-4 satellite for Lockheed Martin and DigitalGlobe. The launch is scheduled for Sept. 16 from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. ULA is headquartered in Centennial, Colorado.