Video by Taylor Emerson, Digital Journalist, University Marketing & Communications
NASA announced on Sept. 24 that a capsule containing surface material from an asteroid has successfully returned to Earth — a mission assisted by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory. NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, spacecraft includes a three-camera suite that encompasses detectors and electronics built and tested by SDL.
OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 with a primary mission to explore, study, and ultimately return a sample from a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu.
At its core, OSIRIS-REx seeks to answer fundamental questions about the origins of our solar system. By studying Bennu, a primitive, carbon-rich asteroid that dates back to the early solar system, scientists hope to gain insights into the processes that led to planet formation and the building blocks of life. Bennu is believed to be a pristine remnant of the solar system’s birth, containing organic molecules and water-bearing minerals. Scientists expect that by careful analysis of a sample from Bennu, humankind will learn more about the materials that may have played a role in the emergence of life on Earth.
The mission also has a planetary defense aspect. Bennu is classified as a potentially hazardous asteroid due to its orbit, which brings it close to Earth. Understanding its composition, structure, and trajectory is vital for assessing and mitigating any potential future impact threats. OSIRIS-REx’s detailed study of Bennu helps improve our ability to predict asteroid paths and develop strategies for deflection or mitigation if necessary.
Moreover, OSIRIS-REx explores the concept of resource utilization in space. The mission’s “Resource Identification” component involves studying Bennu’s composition to identify potential resources like water and minerals. These resources could be extracted for use in future space exploration missions, supporting endeavors such as refueling spacecraft, creating life-support systems, and even sustaining human colonies on other celestial bodies.
The three cameras for which SDL provided imaging technology — PolyCam, MapCam, and SamCam — played a pivotal role in selecting the site on Bennu for sample collection, mapping the asteroid, documenting the sampling process, and monitoring the spacecraft’s progress throughout the mission.
A Precision Lens on Bennu
PolyCam acted as the mission’s scout, capturing high-resolution images of Bennu from afar. These images are awe-inspiring and essential for selecting the ideal spot on Bennu’s surface for the Touch-And-Go (TAG) sampling maneuver. PolyCam’s precision and clarity provided invaluable data for the mission’s success.
Charting Bennu’s Landscape
MapCam contributed to the meticulous mapping of Bennu’s surface. It captured wide-angle images with the highest possible spatial resolution, enabling scientists to construct detailed maps of the asteroid. This mapping was crucial for identifying areas of scientific interest, safe landing zones, and potential hazards that could jeopardize the spacecraft during sampling.
Witnessing History Up Close
SamCam was tasked with recording the historic TAG sampling event. This camera documented every critical moment as the spacecraft descended to Bennu’s surface, briefly touched down, and collected the sample. SamCam’s role was to provide essential visual data that ensured safe execution of the sampling maneuver.
Dante Lauretta is the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Arizona. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance.
“SDL is humbled to have played a role in this historic mission that will help answer fundamental scientific questions for the benefit of all, and we remain grateful to Dr. Lauretta and NASA for their leadership,” said Jed Hancock, president of SDL. “I am proud of our SDL staff, who were committed to enabling mission success for our partners by ensuring that critical moments of the mission were captured with precision and clarity.”
After releasing the sample capsule, OSIRIS-REx completed a maneuver to begin its extended mission investigating the asteroid Apophis.
Headquartered on Utah State University’s Innovation Campus in North Logan, UT, the Space Dynamics Laboratory is a nonprofit organization and a Department of Defense University Affiliated Research Center owned by USU. More than 1,000 dedicated SDL engineers, scientists, business professionals, and student employees solve technical challenges faced by the military, science community, and industry and support NASA’s vision to explore the secrets of the universe for the benefit of all. SDL has field offices in Albuquerque, NM; Chantilly, VA; Dayton, OH; Huntsville, AL; Ogden, UT; and Stafford, VA. For more information, visit www.sdl.usu.edu.
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