NASA’s OSIRIS-REx has been in the news the past few days, as it’s currently on a mission on asteroid Bennu. Launched in 2016, this spacecraft was developed solely for studying asteroids in the Solar System. Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at this spacecraft which has been making headlines these past couple of days.
The OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft
The OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft was first launched by NASA in 2016, and the spacecraft was designed specifically for observing asteroids in space. The main goal has been to learn about the makeup of asteroids, by obtaining a sample from Bennu, an asteroid near the planet Earth that’s made from carbonaceous material. It’s believed that by studying this material, scientists can learn more about how the Earth was formed, and how it led to the development of life on our planet. The organic compounds from which asteroids are derived give us enormous insight into our own species, which survives based on the presence of these organic compounds.
The mission is the third of New Frontiers Program, following Juno and New Horizons. This program was developed with the goal to understand more about the physical nature of the Solar System, and revolves around collecting samples in order to learn more about space materials, space objects and processes that take place in space. The program was first developed in 2003, and encouraged both American and international scientists to take part in an effort to use the best resources to gather as much information as possible.
OSIRIS-REx stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.” The $800 million project is considered a medium-class mission, and plans to return samples from Bennu to Earth in 2023. The mission is led by the University of Arizona. If all goes according to plan, the mission will be the first of the United States to bring a sample of an asteroid back to Earth.
The reason why Bennu has been the asteroid NASA is focusing on has to do with its primitive nature. Belong to the “B” category of asteroids, it is believed that its prehistoric makeup has not been altered over time, thus giving scientists the information that they need on the asteroids that were present in space at the time of origin of human life on our planet.
Its carbonaceous material, which is present throughout the Solar System, is rich in organic molecules that are essential to life. Further, these organic molecules provide massive insight into how our own planet was formed.
It took about two years for the spacecraft to reach Bennu, where it currently remains. It employs a series of advanced instruments to gather these samples, including “OCAMS,” which are specially developed cameras made exclusively for this mission. They utilize high-resolution imaging via telescopes in order to provide extremely detailed images of the materials in question. OVIRS is another specially developed instrument which maps out different materials on the asteroid’s surface, acting as a spectrometer. Perhaps the most important instrument is the TAGSAM, which physically gathers the materials that will be brought back to Earth, utilizing a sampler head with a high-tech arm, and pads which collect finer materials.
NASA’s Current Mission with the OSIRIS-REx
Just this month, NASA announced that the spacecraft effectively gathered the amount of material required, which is two ounces. But, upon receiving this information, it was discovered that the TAGSAM was leaking asteroid particles. Currently, the team is in the process of stowing the TAGSAM arm so that no more particles are lost, so that by the time the spacecraft returns to Earth, it will maintain its two ounces of sample material.
The OSIRIS-REx mission is not without its challenges, but NASA is confident that in 2023, we will have an ample collection of materials from the asteroid Bennu. This will give scientists a rare opportunity to learn more about the development of the Solar System which ultimately led to life on our own home planet.