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SDL celebrates OSIRIS-REx approach to near-Earth asteroid

December 3, 2018 | HJNews

After more than two years, a spacecraft equipped with cameras built by USU’s Space Dynamics Lab has just about reached a near-Earth asteroid, a major milestone in NASA’s first-ever mission to scoop up a sample of the object and return it to Earth.

Several members of SDL reportedly watched Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer — OSIRIS-REx for short — thanks to a live internet feed.

Jed Hancock, SDL’s executive director of programs and operations and SDL program manager for OSIRIS-REx, told The Herald Journal in an interview Monday that he was pleased with the developments.

“It is so exciting to be part of a mission that lasts so many years in deep space,” Hancock said. “You get to kind of relive the thrill of delivery, the thrill of launch, and now we’re at arrival. Our staff, we’re excited.”

On Sept. 8, 2016, OSIRIS-REx launched and traveled through space to meet asteroid 1999 RQ36, also known as Bennu. Bennu, according to the OSIRIS-REx mission website, “may record the earliest history of our solar system” and “contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth’s oceans.”

In about a year’s time, OSIRIS-REx will soon scoop up samples of Bennu and then head home, bringing the samples back to Earth in 2023.

OSIRIS-REx hasn’t yet scooped up some of Bennu; Monday’s event celebrated that the spacecraft had met the asteroid and made its first pass over the top of it.

“After a two-year journey, everything is successful; all systems are working,” Hancock said.

OSIRIS-REx will orbit the asteroid and collect images for the next year and a half, according to Hancock.

“The real purpose of all of this exquisite imagery is to select the right place to collect a sample,” he said. “It never really lands; it just touches. It’s called a touch-and-go sample.”

While SDL officials are keenly interested on what OSIRIS-REx will do next, the agency on USU’s Innovation Campus has been involved at almost the very inception of the project.

In partnership with the University of Arizona, SDL built the detector assemblies for the OSIRIS-REx camera suite, known as OCAMS, and also tested that system.

Since OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016, SDL has communicated with University of Arizona — the principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx — to see how the OCAMS is working, according to Hancock.

“They have performed almost flawlessly,” he said.

Even before OSIRIS-REx got to Bennu, OCAMS was getting to work. One of the cameras, PolyCam, took images of the asteroid to help the spacecraft navigate, according to Hancock.

“It’s really getting fun for us now, because we’re close to the asteroid, so the camera systems that we built are taking this awesome imagery in space of this object that’s the size of a football stadium,” Hancock said. “As each one of these images comes down, it’s just really fun for us to see our contribution give light to this science project.”

The job of a second camera, MapCam, is to map the asteroid and provide a high-resolution image of the area when the sample will be collected. The third camera, SamCam, will document the OSIRIS-REx taking a sample of the asteroid.

Hancock said the sample will have the minerals and chemicals that existed before the solar system was formed.

“That will help us determine the building blocks of life in terms of how the solar system was formed,” he said.

Hancock said working on the OSIRIS-REx development and mission has been a good experience for him and others at SDL.

“Working on this kind of a mission is a career-defining experience — for me and all of our staff members,” he said. “The science that will be discovered because of this mission will endure for decades.”

The OSIRIS-REx undergoes final assembly in Lockheed Martin’s facility near Denver prior to its 2016 launch. The spacecraft, bearing cameras developed at Space Dynamics Lab in Logan, has approached the near-Earth asteroid it will collect a sample from.