Utah State helps NASA collect pebbles from the surface of an asteroid

October 21, 2020 | The Salt Lake Tribune

(NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/CSA/York/MDA via AP) This undated image made available by NASA shows the asteroid Bennu from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. After almost two years circling the ancient asteroid, OSIRIS-REx will attempt to descend to the treacherous, boulder-packed surface and snatch a handful of rubble on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

NASA took another “giant leap" forward on Tuesday — and do so with some help from Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory.

Four years ago, NASA launched a spaceship toward a distant asteroid. That craft, called OSIRIS-REx, successfully touched down and was able to collect dust and pebbles from the surface of the asteroid Bennu Tuesday night.

Bennu, a carbon-based asteroid that scientists hope contain evidence of our solar system’s ancient history, is now 207 million miles from Earth. It has a relatively high probability of impacting Earth late in the 22nd century.

Utah State’s lab built the electronics for three cameras onboard OSIRIS-REx. The three cameras are known as PolyCam, MapCam and SamCam.

(photo courtesy Lockheed Martin) The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket, launches in 2016 toward its rendezvous with asteroid Bennu.

PolyCam allowed NASA to get images of Bennu from about 1.2 million miles away, which helped with the spacecraft’s navigation to the asteroid. MapCam allowed scientists to search the asteroid for a good place to scrape the surface, while also mapping Bennu. SamCam, a close-range camera, verified the craft actually got a sample from the surface, which scientists call regolith.

“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,” said Jed Hancock, the executive director of programs and operations at Utah State’s Space Dynamics Lab. “SDL is honored to be a part of this historic mission.”

OSIRIS-REx has used its thrusters to push away from Bennu’s surface and the mission team will measure the sample by spinning the spacecraft with the collection arm extended. That material will be placed in a capsul that will be sent back to our planet. It is expected to land in Utah’s West Desert in 2023.