NASA to launch new robotic science mission to asteroid in 2016

Conceptual image of OSIRIS-REx. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA today announced a new space exploration mission: to launch a spacecraft to an asteroid in 2016, and "use a robotic arm to pluck samples that could better explain our solar system's formation and how life began." The mission will be titled Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, and will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth. There's an animation here, illustrating how this will work.

Boing Boing's science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker and I are on a NASA conference call as I type this post; look for a longer report by Maggie on this news. Lockheed Martin will build the craft; the launches will take place at Kennedy Space Center. The cost of the mission is estimated around 1 billion dollars.

A copy of the NASA press release announcing the mission follows.

"This is a critical step in meeting the objectives outlined by President Obama to extend our reach beyond low-Earth orbit and explore into deep space," said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. "It's robotic missions like these that will pave the way for future human space missions to an asteroid and other deep space destinations."

NASA selected OSIRIS-REx after reviewing three concept study reports for new scientific missions, which also included a sample return mission from the far side of the moon and a mission to the surface of Venus.

Asteroids are leftovers formed from the cloud of gas and dust -- the solar nebula -- that collapsed to form our sun and the planets about 4.5 billion years ago. As such, they contain the original material from the solar nebula, which can tell us about the conditions of our solar system's birth.

After traveling four years, OSIRIS-REx will approach the primitive, near Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36 in 2020. Once within three miles of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping. The science team then will pick a location from where the spacecraft's arm will take a sample. The spacecraft gradually will move closer to the site, and the arm will extend to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023. The mission, excluding the launch vehicle, is expected to cost approximately $800 million.

The sample will be stored in a capsule that will land at Utah's Test and Training Range in 2023. The capsule's design will be similar to that used by NASA's Stardust spacecraft, which returned the world's first comet particles from comet Wild 2 in 2006. The OSIRIS-REx sample capsule will be taken to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The material will be removed and delivered to a dedicated research facility following stringent planetary protection protocol. Precise analysis will be performed that cannot be duplicated by spacecraft-based instruments.

RQ36 is approximately 1,900 feet in diameter or roughly the size of five football fields. The asteroid, little altered over time, is likely to represent a snapshot of our solar system's infancy. The asteroid also is likely rich in carbon, a key element in the organic molecules necessary for life. Organic molecules have been found in meteorite and comet samples, indicating some of life's ingredients can be created in space. Scientists want to see if they also are present on RQ36.

"This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration," said Jim Green, director, NASA's Planetary Science Division in Washington. "The knowledge from the mission also will help us to develop methods to better track the orbits of asteroids."

The mission will accurately measure the "Yarkovsky effect" for the first time. The effect is a small push caused by the sun on an asteroid, as it absorbs sunlight and re-emits that energy as heat. The small push adds up over time, but it is uneven due to an asteroid's shape, wobble, surface composition and rotation. For scientists to predict an Earth-approaching asteroid's path, they must understand how the effect will change its orbit. OSIRIS-REx will help refine RQ36's orbit to ascertain its trajectory and devise future strategies to mitigate possible Earth impacts from celestial objects.

Michael Drake of the University of Arizona in Tucson is the mission's principal investigator. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will provide overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft. The OSIRIS-REx payload includes instruments from the University of Arizona, Goddard, Arizona State University in Tempe and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., the Langley Research Center in Hampton Va., and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., also are involved. The science team is composed of numerous researchers from universities, private and government agencies.

This is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program. The first, New Horizons, was launched in 2006. It will fly by the Pluto-Charon system in July 2015, then target another Kuiper Belt object for study. The second mission, Juno, will launch in August to become the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter from pole to pole and study the giant planet's atmosphere and interior. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages New Frontiers for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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  1. And all of a sudden, I’m loving NASA again like I did back in the Apollo days. I wish the Heinleins could see this…

  2. This is incredibly insensitive given today’s other NASA news about poor Spirit. Can’t we grieve in peace?

  3. Dear NASA,

    There is more than one asteroid out there, and this is undoubtedly not the last asteroid probe which will ever be launched. When the probe is designed and fabricated, please ask Lockheed to build more than one.

    Thank you.

  4. @Beelzebuddy

    Who says LockMart has to build it? That is the problem with space. We need more companies that can do these things at a better price.

    Andrew Gasser
    Tea Party in Space

    1. The article says Lockheed is building it.

      But you’re right, that is one major problem – Lockheed is under no obligation to make space access one penny cheaper than their lobbyists are capable of leaching. If you wanna get pissed off, go read how their contracts are written up. Google “cost plus.”

      NASA is actually doing something about this problem, though, albeit very, very slowly. They’re currently investigating the possibility of forming a committee to discuss allocating a small fraction of current NASA funding to fixed-price contracts instead.

  5. Much agreed, we do need many more missions like this. And more experiments. And more pictures. This is how we can understand our universe better.

  6. I bet they could knock a bit off the price tag if they built it out of something other than slabs of solid gold…

  7. This mission seems rather dubious to me. It’s not at all clear that you get 1 billion dollars more information from sampling an asteroid directly than you get from examining meteors. Honestly, it seems like yet another NASA mission for publicity’s sake rather than doing less flashy but more valuable science.

    1. I’m going to assume that by “meteor” you mean “meteorite.” We have a tremendous meteorite record that has taught us a great deal about how the solar system came to be, but it is an incomplete record in a number of ways. I’ll give three.

      First, we can’t link most meteorite types to specific asteroids, so we don’t have a lot of context when trying to make sense of the histories of individual meteorites. The established connection between the HED meteorites and asteroid Vesta is a notable exception.

      Second, most meteorites ultimately originate in the main asteroid belt, but they are not a uniform sampling of the main belt. There are only a couple of “escape hatches” that are favorable for making Earth-crossing orbits, so we don’t know how representative our meteorite samples really are.

      Third, the process of entering the Earth’s atmosphere destroys much of the fine-grained, loose outer layers of regolith (a word that more-or-less means “space dirt”) that contain valuable scientific information. The REx in OSIRIS-REx stands for “Regolith Explorer,” and a major component of this mission will be to study the delicate outer layer of the asteroid for which we have no good way of studying from meteorites.

      It will be great if the target asteroid of OSIRIS-REx turns out to be unrepresented in our meteorite collection (currently the top target candidate is Near Earth Asteroid designated 1999 RQ36, which will presumably be given a snappier name), but we will still get valuable scientific information by studying it in space and returning some samples for analysis back here on Earth.

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