Think about parallel parking a 15-passenger van into simply two to 3 parking areas surrounded by two-story boulders. On October 20, a College of Arizona-led NASA mission 16 years within the making will try the astronomical equal greater than 200 million miles (320 million kilometres) away.


A NASA mission referred to as OSIRIS-REx will quickly try to the touch the floor of an asteroid and acquire free rubble.

OSIRIS-REx is the US’ first asteroid pattern return mission, aiming to gather and carry a pristine, unaltered pattern from an asteroid again to Earth for scientific examine. The spacecraft will try to the touch the floor of the asteroid Bennu, which is hurtling by area at 63,000 miles per hour (101,000 kilometres per hour).

If all goes in keeping with plan, the spacecraft will deploy an 11-foot-long (3-metre-long) robotic arm referred to as TAGSAM – Contact-and-Go Pattern Acquisition Mechanism – and spend about 10 seconds amassing a minimum of two ounces (50 grams) of free rubble from the asteroid. The spacecraft, monitored remotely by a workforce of scientists and engineers, will then stow away the pattern and start its return to Earth, scheduled for 2023.

You’ll be able to watch this pattern assortment “Contact-And-Go” maneuver October 20 at 5:00 pm EDT/ 2:00 pm PDT (2100 UTC) beneath, or on NASA Tv and the company’s web site.

As senior vp for analysis and innovation at UArizona and a mechanical engineer with a protracted profession in area programs engineering, I imagine this milestone for OSIRIS-REx captures completely the spirit of analysis and innovation, the cautious steadiness of problem-solving and perseverance, of impediment and alternative.

OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s sampling arm. (NASA/Goddard/College of Arizona)

What Bennu can educate us

In 2004, Michael Drake, then head of the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory; his protégé, Dante Lauretta, then a UArizona assistant professor of planetary science; and specialists from Lockheed Martin and NASA mentioned the very earliest idea of the OSIRIS-REx mission and what it would obtain.

Asteroids are relics of the earliest supplies that shaped our photo voltaic system, and learning such a pattern would possibly enable scientists to reply elementary questions concerning the origins of the photo voltaic system. Additional, Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid with doable threat of impacting the Earth within the late 2100s, so the mission is also exploring methods by which such a collision may be averted.


Maybe, although, probably the most formidable purpose of the OSIRIS-REx mission is useful resource identification – the “RI” in OSIRIS. This implies, primarily, mapping the chemical properties of Bennu to study, amongst different issues, concerning the potential for mining asteroids to supply rocket gas – a notion which, in 2004, was far forward of its time.

NASA chosen UArizona to guide the mission in 2011, with Drake on the helm. Lauretta, a first-generation school scholar and UArizona alumnus, took over when Drake died that 12 months and continues to guide OSIRIS-REx at this time. He would unquestionably make his predecessor proud.

Whereas OSIRIS-REx is the primary NASA mission to try to gather a pattern from an asteroid, the scientific and technological data requisite of such a mission is the results of many years of prior exploration. Within the early 1990s, NASA’s Galileo flew previous the asteroids Gaspra and Ida. NEAR Shoemaker was the primary human-made object to orbit and land on an asteroid. Earlier than heading for the dwarf planet Ceres in 2012, NASA’s Daybreak spacecraft orbited and mapped extensively the asteroid Vesta.

And maybe most importantly, in 2010, the Japanese counterpart of NASA, JAXA, returned to Earth a small quantity of mud from an asteroid by way of its Hayabusa spacecraft.

Early final 12 months, JAXA’s Hayabusa 2 landed on and efficiently collected a pattern from the asteroid Ryugu. The spacecraft will return to Earth in December of this 12 months. It has been a privilege and an absolute delight to watch and study from the accomplishments of our colleagues in Japan.

Navigating the surprising

OSIRIS-REx launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on eight September 2016, and arrived at Bennu in December 2018. Within the months main as much as this second, its workforce of scientists and engineers has remotely carried out two rehearsals, getting very close to to Bennu with out touching it.

When the OSIRIS-REx workforce chosen Bennu as its goal, it suspected and hoped that the asteroid’s floor would look one thing like a sandy seashore. However the scientific course of – and nature itself – is stuffed with surprises, some difficult, all wondrous.


Because the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft approached Bennu, its suite of high-resolution cameras beamed a whole bunch of pictures of the asteroid again to Earth, revealing not a beachlike floor, however a rugged, boulder-strewn panorama.

This was not precisely within the plan.

The workforce pored over these photos for months, looking for a website each huge sufficient for a spacecraft the dimensions of a giant passenger van to the touch down and maneuver with out hitting a boulder and containing materials effective sufficient to offer free rubble to gather.

On 12 December 2019, the OSIRIS-REx workforce introduced the chosen touchdown website: Nightingale. Nightingale is residence to a comparatively new crater the dimensions of a tennis courtroom. At its edge lies a boulder the dimensions of a two-story constructing.

The workforce, which incorporates a whole bunch of college, researchers and college students from UArizona and several other associate establishments, affectionately refers to this boulder as “Mount Doom”.

In a single small part of Nightingale’s crater – the dimensions of just some parking areas – the workforce recognized free rubble sufficiently small for the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to seize and carry away.

(NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)Bennu’s 152-meter boulder jutting from its southern hemisphere. (NASA/Goddard/College of Arizona)

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Issues may go mistaken on October 20.

Other than crashing into Mount Doom, different much less dramatic, extra possible dangers lurk. The TAGSAM collector head may land on a rock, perched at an angle, quite than flush in opposition to a flat floor of rubble, making its assortment far much less efficient.


As a result of the collector head can accommodate particles solely the dimensions of a nickel or smaller, there’s additionally the chance of it being successfully “clogged” by one thing bigger. In uncharted territory, issues do not at all times go in keeping with plan.

Nonetheless, we’re optimistic.

The age-old adage rings true: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

We have already got gained a lot data from the OSIRIS-REx mission, and we are going to proceed exploring and drawback fixing with the identical daring dedication that has taken us thus far.The Conversation

Elizabeth Cantwell, Professor of Apply for Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering and Senior Vice President for Analysis & Innovation, College of Arizona.

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