Canada's Contribution to the OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission
Canada is partnering with NASA on OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer), the first US-led mission to return a sample from an asteroid to Earth. Since asteroids are made from primal material left over after planets formed, the mission will help scientists investigate the formation of our planets and solar system, the origin of water and organic material on Earth, and will improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth. OSIRIS-REx marks the first time Canada is participating in an international mission to return an extraterrestrial sample to Earth.
Overview of the Mission
The OSIRIS-REx mission is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, which will explore the solar system with frequent, medium-class spacecraft missions that conduct high quality, focused scientific investigations. NASA is investing $800 million (excluding the launch vehicle) in the 14 year mission.
OSIRIS-REx will be launched in September 2016 (the launch window opens on September 8 at 7:05 p.m. EDT) and will reach its target asteroid, Bennu, in 2018. Scientists will then study Bennu's geology for about eight months. Once the sample location is chosen, the spacecraft will approach the surface and—without landing—extend its robotic arm to collect at least 60 g of material from the asteroid's surface. The sample will be returned to Earth in 2023.
The OSIRIS-REx mission is led by Principal Investigator Dante S. Lauretta of the University of Arizona, supported by a science team of co investigators, with project management at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and development partnership with Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
OSIRIS-REx's Destination: Asteroid Bennu
The target asteroid, Bennu (formerly known as Near-Earth Object [NEO 101955] 1999 RQ36), is an accessible, volatile and organic-rich remnant from the early solar system—as well as one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids known, with a 1/2700 risk of impacting Earth in about 200 years. Observations using telescopes have revealed Bennu to be rich in carbon, unusually dark in colour, and unlike any samples in meteorite collections.
Carbonaceous asteroids like Bennu are the direct remnants of the original building blocks of the terrestrial planets in our solar system. Scientists believe they are primitive objects, having changed little from their time of formation. The presence of complex organics in meteorites has led to speculation that similar meteorites from asteroids seeded the early Earth with the building blocks of life. Their chemical and physical nature, distribution, formation and evolution are fundamental to understanding planet formation and the origin of life.
Bennu also has a striking circularly symmetric shape (like a spinning top) that probably formed when the asteroid rotated fast enough for rocks to tumble from its poles to pile up at its equator. Similar shapes are common amongst near-Earth asteroids. Understanding this geology and what it has done to Bennu's internal structure is a mission goal. OSIRIS-REx will also measure the magnitude of the Yarkovsky effect (how sunlight can alter Bennu's orbit over time) and give researchers a better understanding of Bennu's motion so as to better define its orbit and more accurately predict its chances of collision with Earth.
Through funding from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Canada is contributing the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), which will be the most sophisticated lidar (light detection and ranging) system ever flown in space. OLA is a hybrid of the lidar on the Phoenix Mars Lander's Canadian weather station and an instrument flown on the 2005 US Air Force eXperimental Satellite System 11 (XSS 11). The instrument will scan the entire surface of the asteroid to create a highly accurate, 3D model of Bennu, which will provide mission scientists with fundamental data on the asteroid's shape, topography (distribution of boulders, rocks and other surface features), surface processes and evolution.
OLA uses a receiver and two complementary lasers to provide the information beamed back to Earth. The instrument's high-energy laser transmitter will be used for scanning from further distances (1 to 7.5 km from the surface of the asteroid). The low-energy laser will be used for rapid imaging at shorter distances (500 m to 1 km) to contribute to a global topographic map of the asteroid, as well as local maps to assist scientists in selecting the best sites for sample collection.
As the prime contractor for the CSA, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., together with its industrial partner, Optech, designed, built and tested the instrument.
Dr. Michael Daly from York University an expert on lidar technology and former member of the Canadian Phoenix Mars Lander team, is the lead instrument scientist for OLA. Dr. Catherine Johnson of the University of British Columbia (UBC) serves as the deputy instrument scientist.
The OLA instrument science team is supported by additional researchers at both York and UBC, as well as international collaborator teams led by Dr. Olivier Barnouin (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory) and Dr. Beau Bierhaus (Lockheed Martin Space Systems). Instrument engineering support for OLA is led by Dr. Cameron Dickinson (MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.). Overall operations are managed by the Canadian Space Agency's OSIRIS-REx mission scientist, Dr. Tim Haltigin.
In addition to OLA, Canada is contributing a wealth of scientific expertise to the OSIRIS-REx mission. Scientists from around the country were selected to perform investigations that will help unravel the physical, chemical, and geological mysteries that Bennu has in store. Research teams are led by:
- Dr. Edward Cloutis, University of Winnipeg
- Dr. Rebecca Ghent, University of Toronto
- Dr. Alan Hildebrand, University of Calgary
- Dr. Kim Tait, Royal Ontario Museum
In exchange for providing the OLA instrument to the mission, the CSA will own 4% of the total returned sample, thus providing Canada's scientific community with its first-ever direct access to a returned asteroid sample. The CSA's total investment in OSIRIS-REx for the full life cycle of the mission is $61 million (including taxes) over 15 years. The technology that went into building OLA is also expected to generate spinoffs, such as airborne lidar for terrestrial topographic mapping, resource management, and vision systems for robotic mining and geomatics.
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