September 2, 2016
On September 8, 2016, NASA will launch a mission with a lofty goal—discover information about the origin of life in our solar system. They’re not headed to the center of the universe. They’re not headed to some mystical locale. They’re after something much simpler: the dust of an asteroid named Bennu.
Mission Goals: Asteroid Dust
There’s nothing unique about this asteroid. Bennu was chosen for this mission because it meets a few distinguishing criteria. It is close to Earth, it is the right size with a diameter of 492 miles, it has a carbon-rich composition, and it has an orbital pattern that makes the mission possible.
However, Bennu is extremely old. It falls in the category of “primitive” asteroids. These kinds of asteroids were formed over 4 billion years ago and have not significantly changed since then. Because of its age, Bennu likely contains organic molecules, volatiles, and amino acids from a time that predates life on Earth, and it is possible that asteroids like Bennu are responsible for bringing these compounds into our solar system. Stretching that thought further, it’s possible that asteroids like Bennu played a major part in the formation of life on Earth.
The upcoming mission, named OSIRIS-REx, is planning to launch an unmanned shuttle to collect dust off the surface of the asteroid to find out.
Dividing the Spoils
The goal of the mission is to successfully collect at least 60 grams of dust (just over two ounces) and return it to Earth. Once the dust arrives, it will be divided among a few organizations.
- 4% will go to Canada for their partnership on the mission
- .05% will go to Japan for a previous mission that proved the sampling could be done
- 20.5% will be used by current NASA scientists
- 75% will be stored away for future scientists
The last bullet marks the level of foresight for this mission. The OSIRIS-REx program executive, Gordon Johnston, commented that “Three quarters of the sample will be set aside for future researchers—for the science questions we haven’t figured out to even ask yet.” This will be the legacy of the OSIRIS-REx mission and preserve its value for future generations of scientists.
Previous Collection Missions
It’s important to remember that we’ve only accomplished a handful of recovery missions in the past and collected a relatively small amount of material from space. OSIRIS-REx will be in limited company.
- Apollo Missions: Collected approximately 800 pounds of moon rocks
- Genesis Mission: Collected atoms of solar wind to learn about the composition of the sun
- Stardust Mission: Learned about the composition of the tail of a comet.
The Mission Timeline
The seven year mission can be grouped into six phases.
The first phase is, unsurprisingly, the launch phase. For a period of 34 days beginning on September 8, the team at NASA will wait for conditions to meet their requirements. The rocket will launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Once the rocket is in space, it will enter into orbit around the sun and maintain this orbit for a full year. Then, OSIRIS-REx will flyby Earth where it will leverage Earth’s orbital energy to launch it towards Bennu.
When Bennu is about 2 million kilometers away from our craft, OSIRIS-REx will begin decelerating so that when it arrives, it will match the speed of the asteroid. When it has arrived, the work has just begun. OSIRIS-REx will survey Bennu to learn as much as it can about the asteroid before taking a sample.
By July 2020, OSIRIS-REx will be ready to acquire its sample. Using the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), OSIRIS-REx will make contact with the asteroid for approximately five seconds. The TAGSAM will deploy a burst of nitrogen gas to stir up dust and rocks. This debris will then be collected by the sample head. OSIRIS-REx has enough Nitrogen for three bursts. That gives them only three opportunities to perform this maneuver successfully.
In March 2021, OSIRIS-REx has an opportunity to leave Bennu and return to Earth. Thruster engines will launch the craft away from Brennu and on a course that will intercept Earth’s orbit in 2023. Just before reaching the planet, OSIRIS-REx will jettison the capsule. The craft will enter into orbit around the Earth and the capsule will free-fall before it deploys a parachute inside the atmosphere. This will give it a soft landing in the Utah desert on September 2023. The seven year journey will be complete.
Research and Study
Once back on Earth, the dust will be distributed and studied. Scientists will look for the amino acids and sugars which form the building blocks of life.
An Amazing Journey
It’s hard not to be amazed by such an ambitious endeavor. Our ability to accurately project where these bodies will be despite moving at thousands of miles an hour and thousands of miles away is stunning. All we can do is wait and hope for the best.
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