Blazing a trail into the early evening sky, the first asteroid sampling mission launched launched by NASA blasted into space at 7:05 p.m. EDT, September 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to begin a two-year journey to the Near-Earth Asteroid Bennu and collect a sample from its surface.
“Today, we celebrate a huge milestone for this remarkable mission, and for this mission team,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “We’re very excited about what this mission can tell us about the origin of our solar system, and we celebrate the bigger picture of science that is helping us make discoveries and accomplish milestones that might have been science fiction yesterday, but are science facts today.”
The OSIRIS-REx name is an acronym of the mission objectives: Origins – Return and analyze a pristine carbon rich asteroid sample; Spectral Interpretation – Provide ground truth or direct observations for telescopic data of the entire asteroid population; Resource Identification – Map the chemistry and mineralogy of a primitive carbon rich asteroid; Security – Measure the effect of sunlight on the orbit of a small asteroid, known as the Yarkovsky effect,the slight push created when the asteroid absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat; and Regolith Explorer – Document the regolith (layer of loose, outer material) at the sampling site at scales down to the sub-centimeter.
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is designed to rendezvous with, study, and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth. Asteroids like Bennu are remnants from the formation of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists suspect that asteroids may have been a source of the water and organic molecules for the early Earth and other planetary bodies. An uncontaminated asteroid sample from a known source would enable precise analyses, providing results far beyond what can be achieved by spacecraft-based instruments or by studying meteorites.
This mission was launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) 411 configuration vehicle, which includes a 4-meter large Payload Fairing (PLF). The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine, and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine.
Following a normal ascent, OSIRIS-REx separated from the Atlas upper stage at 8:04 p.m. The solar arrays deployed and are now powering the spacecraft. This was ULA’s eighth launch in 2016.
“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.”
“With today’s successful launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft embarks on a journey of exploration to Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “I couldn’t be more proud of the team that made this mission a reality, and I can’t wait to see what we will discover at Bennu.”
In 2018, OSIRIS-REx will approach Bennu – which is the size of a small mountain – and begin an intricate dance with the asteroid, mapping and studying Bennu in preparation for sample collection. In July 2020, the spacecraft will perform a daring maneuver in which its 11-foot arm will reach out and perform a five-second “high-five” to stir up surface material, collecting at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of small rocks and dust in a sample return container. OSIRIS-REx will return the sample to Earth in September 2023, when it will then be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for examination.
For two years after the sample return (from late 2023-2025) the science team will catalog the sample and conduct the analysis needed to meet the mission science goals. NASA will preserve at least 75% of the sample at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston for further research by scientists worldwide, including future generations of scientists.
The OSIRIS-REx mission will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era.The Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) is an articulated robotic arm with a sampler head, provided by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, to collect a sample of Bennu’s surface. OSIRIS-REx’s Sample Return Capsule (SRC) is a capsule with a heat shield and parachutes through which the spacecraft will return the asteroid sample to Earth, provided by Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company.
OSIRIS-REx contains five instruments to explore Bennu, each of which provides important information for the mission. This suite of instruments is used for remote sensing or scanning the surface of the asteroid. They will map Bennu and establish the composition of the asteroid, including the distribution of elements, minerals and organic material:
OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) – a system consisting of three cameras provided by the University of Arizona in Tucson will observe Bennu and provide global image mapping, as well as sample site image mapping.
OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) – a scanning LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) contributed by the Canadian Space Agency in Saint-Hubert, QC will be used to measure the distance between the spacecraft and Bennu’s surface and map the shape of the asteroid.
OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) – an instrument provided by Arizona State University in Tempe that will provide mineral and temperature information by observing the thermal infrared spectrum.
OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) – an instrument provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland will measure visible and infrared light from Bennu to identify mineral and organic material.
Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) – a student experiment provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, both in Cambridge, that will observe the x-ray spectrum to determine what elements are present on Bennu’s surface and how abundant they are.
“It’s satisfying to see the culmination of years of effort from this outstanding team,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We were able to deliver OSIRIS-REx on time and under budget to the launch site, and will soon do something that no other NASA spacecraft has done – bring back a sample from an asteroid.”
Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The University of Arizona leads the science team and observation planning and processing. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the agency’s New Frontiers Program for its Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Launch and countdown management is the responsibility of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.