Metropolitan State University Hosts OSIRIS-REx Presentation

The UA's Dante Lauretta first began work with his mentor, the late Michael Drake, on the OSIRIS-REx mission in 2004. Image Credit: John de Dios/UANews

The UA’s Dante Lauretta first began work with his mentor, the late Michael Drake, on the OSIRIS-REx mission in 2004. Image Credit: John de Dios/UANews

May 6, 2016 – Metropolitan State University of Denver and the University of Arizona Alumni Association co-hosted a presentation on Thursday, April 28 about NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Speakers at the event included University of Arizona Professor Dante Lauretta, Principal Investigator; Tim Linn, Chief Systems Engineer, Lockheed Martin; and Jayson Cowley, ULA NASA Mission Manager.

OSIRIS-Rex is scheduled to rendezvous with near-Earth asteroid Bennu in 2018 and to return a sample of at least 2.1 ounces of surface material to Earth in 2023.

Metro State President Stephen Jordan welcomed the speakers and discussed the new Aerospace and Engineering Sciences building currently under construction.

“We began an initiative a few years ago to focus on advanced manufacturing for aerospace,” Jordan said. “We’ll focus on training the workforce to create the materials for the aerospace industry in Colorado.”

Beginning in the Fall of 2016, Metro State will introduce a single integrated curriculum that will reach across three colleges and six separate departments. The curriculum and experiential laboratories are designed to train workforce-ready graduates to meet the needs of a burgeoning advanced manufacturing industry in the state.

Nancy Yaeli, representing the University of Arizona alumni, welcomed the thirty U of A Wildcats that were in attendance. She gave a brief history of the University of Arizona saying that it had been established in 1885 and receives more than $600 million annually in research investment. Yaeli then introduced Dante Lauretta.

Lauretta is a Tucson, Arizona native who was a NASA Space Grant intern during his undergraduate years at the University.

“I’m a huge fan of the NASA Space Grant program,” said Lauretta. “If I hadn’t responded to that ad, I wouldn’t have been on this trajectory – I would not be the PI for the OSIRIS-REx mission.”

After continuing his education and earning his Ph.D., Lauretta became an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona. His mentor, Michael Drake, was contacted by Lockheed Martin Space Systems about the possibility of doing an asteroid sample return mission.

“My journey began back in 2004 when Michael Drake invited me to be the deputy principal investigator,” Lauretta says. “We worked together for seven years on proposals and had several rejected before we were accepted in 2010 for a concept study and in 2011 for flight.”

Sadly, Drake died in September of that year and Lauretta stepped up as PI.

“A lot of what we do is in his honor,” Lauretta says of Drake. “He was really dedicated to the science and to student involvement and the inspiration of the next generation.”

The Tucson team thus far has included 9 graduates and 18 undergraduates from disciplines ranging from writing, geophysics, library services, finance and optical sciences. Their tasks on the project vary depending on their background and training. Several generations of students will be involved by the completion of the mission and about a half dozen have been hired to continue on the project after graduation, including one that now works for Lockheed Martin.

The OSIRIS-REx mission is unique because it’s designed to return a pristine sample of an asteroid for analysis on Earth. Asteroids are the primitive remnants from the formation of our solar system and studying them will help scientists better understand the origin of our solar system. History is recorded in the asteroids and Bennu is expected to be rich in carbon, which is the building block of life.

“We’re really going back 4.5 billion years in history,” Lauretta said. “We’re getting rocks that record the processes that were taking place right at the dawn of our solar system, when the planets were being born and the materials that would go into those planets were being formed.”

“I’m really interested in the role these bodies have played, or potentially play, in the origin of life on Earth and the establishment of the habitability of our planet,” added Lauretta.

The only way scientists currently have to learn about this material is through studying meteorites that impact Earth – but these are full of contaminants from space and from hurling through the Earth’s atmosphere and into Earth itself. Scientists also have no context for the meteorites.

“Let’s say you have a mountain,” Lauretta said. “Hiking to the top of the mountain is like going to the asteroid belt – or you can pick a rock out of a stream at the foot of the mountain and try to figure out where it came from.”

The spacecraft is built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton, Colorado. A lot of care has gone into planning and design to ensure that the returned sample will remain pristine.

“We’ve been able to take some heritage from MAVEN and MRO and leverage it,” said Linn, “but returning a pristine sample has brought a whole new level of design to the spacecraft.”

Lockheed Martin has had to incorporate very rigorous contamination control for the spacecraft and document everything that comes in contact with it. The collection plates are stored so there will be a permanent record for scientists studying the sample in the future.

Engineers are currently preparing the spacecraft for a mid-May transport to Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane. Once there, it will be undergo preparations for its September 8 launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

The launch is only the start of the mission though. Once in space, OSIRIS-REx will navigate to Asteroid Bennu, one of more than 700,000 asteroids in our solar system. Bennu was chosen for a variety of reasons, but chiefly because of its location. Because it’s relatively near to Earth, it’s well characterized. Scientists have collected extensive radar and telescopic data about Bennu and know a lot about its orbit and composition. Bennu is one of the most carbonaceous asteroids in our solar system and is large enough to retrieve a sample.

The nature of a pristine sample return meant that engineers would design a spacecraft that would be monopropellant and rely on solar arrays for most of its power. That meant it couldn’t travel as far as the Main Asteroid Belt.

Finally, scientists know that Bennu’s orbit crosses Earth’s orbit every six years, making it an easy target to get to and return from.

Bennu’s orbit will cross Earth’s again in 2017, making it possible for OSIRIS-REx to begin orbiting the asteroid.

In addition to a touch-and-go sample acquisition arm and a sample return capsule modeled after the Stardust mission, the spacecraft will carry a laser altimeter, a suite of cameras, spectrometers, and lidar, which is similar to radar, but uses light instead of radio waves to measure distance. During the encounter period, OSIRIS-REx will photograph the asteroid and use its instruments to map the global properties, chemistry and mineralogy. Scientists will analyze the data to determine the best possible sample site.

Lockheed Martin will then conduct two sample retrieval rehearsals before the actual event. When a sample is collected, it will be stored in the Sample Return Canister, which is the only part of the spacecraft to return to Earth.

The sample will return to Earth in 2023 when Bennu and Earth orbits once again line up. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is designed to release the capsule, which will enter the Earth’s atmosphere and then parachute to the ground. The spacecraft will be diverted toward the sun, where it will orbit until the end of its life, but because its solar arrays will burn up from the intense heat, no further contact will be made with the spacecraft after 30 days from the time it releases the capsule.

The mission’s spacecraft operations will be based at Lockheed Martin and the science operations will be housed at the UA’s Drake Building, currently being remodeled to accommodate an additional 300 people for a period of about 17 months. The team involves scientists from the U.S., Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Italy and France who will work together in what UA hopes will become a world-class sample laboratory.

Lockheed Martin and the University of Arizona previously worked together on the Phoenix Lander program. The University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory goes back to Gerard Kuiper in the 1950’s, widely considered to be one of the first planetary scientists. UA has done extensive work with asteroid surveys and cosmochemistry.