A Little Bit of Cache Valley On Board Space Mission to Asteroid Bennu

EDCUtah logoThe Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan played a major role in developing some of the instrumentation on the solar-powered spacecraft, named the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resources Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, which will carry out the seven-year mission to collect a small sample of an asteroid’s surface material.

The SDL designed, built and tested the detector electronics assemblies for the three OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) instruments. The OCAMS will provide long-range acquisition of the asteroid and imaging of its surface, down to millimeter ranges, along with global mapping, sample-site characterization and sample acquisition documentation.

In essence, the focal arrays developed by SDL will help OSIRIS-REx find the asteroid and then map the surface and document the landing site. The SDL says the arrays took three years to develop because of the heavy demands placed upon equipment for space missions.

Dr. Jed Hancock, director of the civil space division of SDL, previously explained to Utah Business: “You have to understand that the electronics have to survive space for seven years. They’re out in an environment where there’s radiation and they have to survive temperature extremes. You also have to build and design so it can survive the launch from a rocket. When a rocket takes off, there’s a lot of shaking that goes on. These electronics have to be designed and tested thoroughly to make sure they’ll survive in space. You have to do all these things using as little power as possible. In space, power is a limited resource.”

The $1 billion trip to asteroid Bennu will gather carbon-rich surface material and return it to Earth for a parachute descent to the U.S. Air Force Utah Test and Training Range in 2023. Bennu was selected for the mission because it is an “organically-rich, near-Earth asteroid.” Hancock said Bennu is a well-known and well-studied asteroid in orbit around the sun and one of about six asteroids with carbon on their surfaces that are within a relatively close range. OSIRIS-REx will take close-up pictures of the face of the asteroid and then touch down to take samples of the soil on its surface.

The mission is focused on better understanding the distant past, with hopes the information gleaned there will help with upcoming NASA projects. Although it has been extensively studied from a distance, little is known about its geography, according to Hancock, and because it contains carbon, it might give clues about the beginning of life.

Hancock explained that by studying the soil from Bennu, “scientists can better understand the formation of our solar system and potentially have a time history, a time capsule of the origins of life, where this asteroid contains carbon.”

Observing asteroids from the Earth doesn’t provide much detail. However, the OSIRIS-REx mission will provide scientists with a close-up perspective of what an asteroid is really like, similar to viewing New York City from street level rather than from pictures in a magazine, according to Hancock.