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USU assists in successful Bennu asteroid sample collection mission

October 21, 2020 | KSL News

NASA’s successful sample collection mission to the distant Bennu asteroid involved work done at Utah State University. And its return will include a landing in Utah’s West Desert. 

Technicians begin assembling the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft in a Lockheed Martin Space clean room facility near Denver, Colorado. Date Taken: Mar. 26, 2015 Credit: Lockheed Martin

After launching in 2016, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft (OSIRIS-REx for short) completed its mission collecting surface samples in part thanks to work done at Utah State University.

OSIRIS-REx and the mission to Bennu

NASA says the OSIRIS-REx mission seeks answers to the questions central to the human experience. Those questions include: “Where did we come from? What is our destiny?” The agency hopes to find answers on ancient asteroids like Bennu.

“Asteroids, the leftover debris from the solar system formation process, can answer these questions and teach us about the history of the sun and planets,” they write on the OSIRIS-REx mission page.

The Bennu asteroid, bigger than the Empire State Building, could uniquely help. NASA describes it as a carbon-based “rubble pile” asteroid. Instead of being one solid mass, it’s made up of boulders held together by gravity.

NASA said they chose this particular asteroid because of its composition, size, proximity to Earth, and the fact it is a rare B-type asteroid. This means it is incredibly old and carbon-rich, both characteristics NASA hopes will shed light on the earliest forms of life on earth.

The goal was to have the spacecraft collect samples from the surface and return them to earth.

SDL’s involvement

The Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University helped build the three cameras involved in the mission. Named the PolyCam, MapCam, and SamCam, each served a different function. 

The PolyCam obtained some of the first images of Bennu. It took photos from the spacecraft when it was still about 1.2 million miles away. The camera also assisted in navigation to the asteroid during its approach.

Next, the spacecraft employed the MapCam while orbiting the asteroid, looking for a safe place to land.

Finally, the SamCam, a close-range camera, took charge on Tuesday. It verified the spacecraft successfully collected its sample from the surface of Bennu. 

“The successful collection of regolith from Bennu perfectly illustrates the ingenuity of the dedicated men and women from America’s storied space program, who routinely collaborate in order to provide valuable science,” SDL’s executive director of programs and operations, Jed Hancock, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“SDL is honored to be a part of this historic mission that builds upon our decades-long partnership with NASA and helps the agency achieve its vision to ‘reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.’”

The samples collected 207 million miles away will return to earth in 2023 and land in Utah’s West Desert.