OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security‒Regolith Explorer)
|Launch date||8 Sept 2016|
OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security‒Regolith Explorer)Spacecraft Launch Mission Status Sensor Complement TAG Phase Flight Dynamics References
OSIRIS-REx is an 'Asteroid Sample Return Mission' NASA's New Frontiers Program. The objective is to rendezvous and thoroughly characterize near-Earth asteroid Bennu (previously known as 1019551999 RQ36). The rendezvous with Bennu is planned for October 2018 . After several months of proximity operations to characterize the asteroid, OSIRIS-REx flies a TAG (Touch-And-Go) trajectory to the asteroid’s surface to collect at least 60 gram of pristine regolith sample for Earth return. — This asteroid is both the most accessible carbonaceous asteroid and the most potentially hazardous asteroid known. Knowledge of its nature is fundamental to understanding planet formation and the origin of life. Only by understanding the organic chemistry and geochemistry of an asteroid sample can this knowledge be acquired.
OSIRIS-REx brings together all of the pieces essential for a successful asteroid sample return mission, — The University of Arizona’s (Tucson, AZ) leadership in planetary science and experience operating the Mars Phoenix Lander; Lockheed Martin’s (Denver, CO) unique experience in sample-return mission development and operations; NASA/GSFC's (Greenbelt, MD) expertise in project management, systems engineering, safety and mission assurance, and visible-near infrared spectroscopy; KinetX’s (Tempe, AZ) experience with spacecraft navigation; and Arizona State University’s (Tempe, AZ) knowledge of thermal emission spectrometers. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is providing a laser altimeter, building on the strong relationship established during the Phoenix Mars mission. In addition, MIT and Harvard College Observatory are providing an imaging X-ray spectrometer as a Student Collaboration Experiment. The science team includes members from the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy. 1) 2) 3)
Bennu is a time capsule from 4.5 billion years ago. A pristine, carbonaceous asteroid containing the original material from the solar nebula, from which our Solar System formed. This is the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth, addressing multiple NASA Solar System Exploration objectives to understand not just the origin of the Solar System, but the origin of water and organic material on Earth.
Bennu is a near-Earth object with a mean diameter in of ~492 m and a mass of ~7.8 x 1010 kg. It completes an orbit of the Sun every 436.604 days (1.2 years). This orbit takes it close to the Earth every six years. Although the orbit is reasonably well known, scientists continue to refine it.
The OSIRIS-REx Mission seeks answers to questions that are central to the human experience: Where did we come from? What is our destiny? OSIRIS-REx is going to Bennu, a carbon-rich asteroid that records the earliest history of our Solar System, and bringing a piece of it back to Earth. Bennu may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth’s oceans. Bennu is also one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids. It has a relatively high probability of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century. OSIRIS-REx will determine Bennu’s physical and chemical properties. This will be critical for future scientists to know when developing an impact mitigation mission.
4) 5) 6) 7)Key OSIRIS-REx Science Objectives
• Return and analyze a sample of pristine carbonaceous asteroid regolith in an amount sufficient to study the nature, history, and distribution of its constituent minerals and organic material.
• Map the global properties, chemistry, and mineralogy of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to characterize its geologic and dynamic history and provide context for the returned samples.
• Document the texture, morphology, geochemistry, and spectral properties of the regolith at the sampling site in situ at scales down to the submillimeter.
• Measure the orbit deviation caused by non-gravitational forces; determine the Yarkovsky effect on a potentially hazardous asteroid and constrain the asteroid properties that contribute to this effect.
• Characterize the integrated global properties of a primitive carbonaceous asteroid to allow for direct comparison with ground-based telescopic data of the entire asteroid population.
OSIRIS-REx will launch from Earth and travel for about two years to the asteroid Bennu. Upon arrival, OSIRIS-REx will map the total surface, creating a detailed shape model of the asteroid. OSIRIS-REx will also measure the magnitude of the Yarkovsky effect, a factor in the orbits of asteroids that may pose a threat to Earth. The craft will then approach — not land upon — Bennu, and extend a robotic arm to obtain a sample of pristine surface material (at least 60 gram).
Returning to Earth in a Sample Return Capsule, a proven model originally used during the NASA Stardust mission, the material will then be studied by scientists at the NASA/JSC ( Johnson Space Center) and from around the world for clues about the composition of the very early Solar System, the source of what may have made life possible on Earth. The data collected at the asteroid will aid our understanding of asteroids that pose an impact hazard to Earth, and the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be a pathfinder for future spacecraft that perform reconnaissance on any newly-discovered threatening objects.
OSIRIS-REx is scheduled for launch in 2016. As planned, the spacecraft will reach its asteroid target in 2018 and return a sample to Earth in 2023.
NASA/GSFC will provide overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. The PI (Principal Investigator) of the mission is Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program. NASA/MSFC (Marshall Space Flight Center) in Huntsville, AL, manages New Frontiers for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
The spacecraft is a derivative of the MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) missions, leveraging the key heritage design components of these two missions. Healthy resource margins across the vehicle, fully redundant spacecraft subsystems with extensive cross strapping, and high heritage hardware enable flexibility throughout the spacecraft development and during flight operations.
The OSIRIS-REx flight system is made up of the spacecraft bus (which includes the structure, and all of the various subsystem components to control and operate the vehicle), the TAGSAM (Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism), the SRC (Sample Return Capsule), and the five science instruments.
EPS (Electrical Power Subsystem): The EPS includes two rigid solar arrays, gimballed about the spacecraft Y and Z axes. In addition, two batteries are utilized for off-sun maneuvering, including the critical TAG mission phase.
PPS (Propulsion Subsystem): The high heritage propulsion subsystem is a single fault tolerant monopropellant system of Aerojet Rocketdyne, a subsidiary of Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc. The propulsion subsystem includes main engines, trajectory correction maneuver thrusters, attitude control system thrusters, and low thrust reaction engine assemblies. The propulsion devices on the spacecraft include four MR-107S 222 N thrusters, six MR-106L 22 N thrusters, 16 MR-111G 4.4 N thrusters and two MR-401 0.44 N thrusters. — Aerojet Rocketdyne propulsion is involved in every phase of the mission, including the Earth-departure phase to fine tune the Earth escape velocity; the cruise phase to adjust trajectory and ensure a perfectly accurate trajectory for the Earth swing-by and arrival at Bennu. 8)
GN&C (Guidance, Navigation and Control): The GN&C subsystem includes four RWAs (Reaction Wheel Assemblies) for performing spacecraft slewing and low jitter pointing during science operations. These reaction wheels also store system momentum between desaturation events. The GN&C subsystem is responsible for commanding all of the thrusters on the spacecraft including executing trajectory correction maneuvers and RWA desaturations. The GN&C subsystem utilizes an IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) and flight-proven star trackers to determine and propagate on-board attitude knowledge. Sun sensors additionally support spacecraft autonomous safing operations. Two GN&C sensors provide measurements used for relative navigation: a GN&C lidar is used for ranging to the surface to support TAG operations, a TAGCAMS (TAG Camera System) supports ground based navigation throughout proximity operations and autonomous on-board optical based navigation during the TAG phase.
RF communications: This subsystem utilizes X-band communications, using a MAVEN build-to-print high gain antenna and MRO heritage traveling wave tube amplifier for science high data rate downlink. A medium gain antenna is utilized during the TAG mission phase. Also two low gain antennas are available for TAG but also used for nominal (and safe-mode) engineering data downlink and uplink commanding.
SRC (Sample Return Capsule)
To safely return the collected sample to Earth, OSIRIS-Rex capitalizes on the success of NASA’s Stardust mission. The proven Stardust SRC technology and capsule, mission operations, and mission design are all reused on OSIRIS-Rex for Bennu sample return.
• May 22, 2016: The OSIRIS-REx satellite was flown to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center from prime contractor Lockheed Martin’s facility near Denver, Colorado via Buckley Air Force Base. It arrived safely inside its shipping container on May 20 aboard an Air Force C-17 at the Shuttle Landing Facility. 9) 10)
• March 8, 2016: NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is in thermal vacuum testing, designed to simulate the harsh environment of space and see how the spacecraft and its instruments operate under ‘flight-like’ conditions. 11)
• January 8, 2016: The student-built REXIS (Regolith X-Ray Imaging Spectrometer) instrument of MIT/SSL has been integrated onto the OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft. 12)
• Dec. 17, 2015: The Canadian-built OLA (OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter) of CSA was delivered to Lockheed Martin Space Systems facilities near Denver, Colorado. OLA was built by MDA (MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd.) and its partner, Optech. In the coming months, OLA will be integrated onto the spacecraft and undergo spacecraft-level testing in preparation for launch in September 2016. 13)
• October 21, 2015: Lockheed Martin has completed the assembly of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The spacecraft is now undergoing environmental testing at the company’s Space Systems facilities near Denver, CO. 14) 15)
- Over the next five months, the spacecraft will be subjected to a range of rigorous tests that simulate the vacuum, vibration and extreme temperatures it will experience throughout the life of its mission. Specifically, OSIRIS-REx will undergo tests to simulate the harsh environment of space, including thermal vacuum, launch acoustics, separation and deployment shock, vibration, and electromagnetic interference and compatibility.
- OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to ship from Lockheed Martin’s facility to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center next May, where it will undergo final preparations for launch.
• August 29, 2015: The assembly of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft continues, with many elements integrated onto the spacecraft ahead of schedule. Last month both OTES and OVIRS were delivered to Lockheed Martin and installed on the science deck. OTES had the honor of being the first science instrument to be placed on the spacecraft. Both OTES and OVIRS came in ahead of schedule, despite some adversity in their development. 16) 17)
• July 8, 2015: The OVIRS (OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer) instrument arrived at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver for installation onto the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. 18)
• June 22, 2015: With the launch only 15 months away, the team of the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, led by the University of Arizona, is preparing to deliver its instruments for integration with the spacecraft over the next several months. 19)
• March 31, 2015: The spacecraft structure has been integrated with the propellant tank and propulsion system and is ready to begin system integration at Lockheed Martin. The OSIRIS-REx project officially received authorization to transition into the next phase of the mission, Phase D, after completing a series of independent reviews verifying that the program’s technical, schedule and cost elements are all on course. The key decision meeting was held at NASA Headquarters in Washington on March 30 and chaired by NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The next major milestone is the Mission Operations Review, scheduled for completion in June. 20)
• Feb. 27, 2015: OSIRIS-REx mission completes system integration review. The team met at the Lockheed Martin facility in Littleton, Colorado during the week of February 23, 2015 to review the plan for integrating all of the systems on the spacecraft, such as the scientific instrumentation, electrical and communication systems, and navigation systems. Successful completion of this System Integration Review means that the project can proceed with assembling and testing the spacecraft in preparations for launch in September 2016. Assembly and testing operations for the spacecraft are on track to begin next month at the Lockheed Martin facilities in Littleton. 22)
• In early April 2014, the OSIRIS-REx program completed the comprehensive CDR (Critical Design Review) of the mission and has been given approval to begin building the spacecraft, flight instruments and ground system. The review was performed by an independent review board, comprised of experts from NASA and several external organizations, that validated the detailed design of the spacecraft, instruments and ground system. 23) 24) 25)
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was launched on September 8, 2016 (23:05 UTC) on an Atlas V 411 vehicle of ULA (United Launch Alliance) from the Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral, FL. 26)
The OSIRIS-REx launch window opens on September 3, 2016. The launch period will last for 39 days, with a 30 minute window available each day. OSIRIS-REx will leave Cape Canaveral, Florida on an Atlas V rocket in the 411 configuration. Throughout the 39 days the characteristic energy (C3) is fixed at 29.3km2/s2, for a launch vehicle capability of 1955 kg. 27) 28)
Following an Earth flyby and gravity assist in Sept 2017, OSIRIS-REx cruises for 11 months and starts the optical search for Bennu in Aug 2018, marking the beginning of the Approach phase. Rendezvous occurs in Oct 2018, followed by a month of slow approach to allow the flight system to search for moons around Bennu and to refine its shape and spin state models.
Launch on an EELV from Cape Canaveral on an Earth-escape trajectory
Perform deep space maneuver; Earth flyby & gravity assist; instrument calibration & checkout
Perform braking maneuvers; survey the Bennu orbital environment for natural satellites; collect the first resolved images
Estimate the mass of Bennu; refine shape and spin state models
Demonstrate orbital flight; transition to landmark-based optical navigation
Spectrally map the entire Bennu surface; collect images and lidar data for global shape and spin state models; search for dust plumes
Collect lidar and radiometric data for high resolution topographic map and gravity model; observe candidate sampling sites and downselect for reconnaissance
Conduct sorties for closer look at up to 4 candidate sampling sites and select 1
Systematically and deliberately practice steps of sample collection sequence
Collect >60g (Level 2 requirement) of pristine bulk regolith and 26 cm2 of surface material, and stow it in the SRC (Sample Return Capsule)
Remain in Bennu's heliocentric orbit; monitor spacecraft health
Transport the sample back to the vicinity of the Earth
Earth Return & Recovery
Get the sample safely to the ground and to the curation facility in late September 2023
• July 7, 2022: After analyzing data gathered when NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collected a sample from asteroid Bennu in October 2020, scientists have learned something astonishing: The spacecraft would have sunk into Bennu had it not fired its thrusters to back away immediately after it grabbed dust and rock from the asteroid’s surface. 29)
- It turns out that the particles making up Bennu’s exterior are so loosely packed and lightly bound to each other that if a person were to step onto Bennu they would feel very little resistance, as if stepping into a pit of plastic balls that are popular play areas for kids.
- “If Bennu was completely packed, that would imply nearly solid rock, but we found a lot of void space in the surface,” said Kevin Walsh, a member of the OSIRIS-REx science team from Southwest Research Institute, which is based in San Antonio.
- The latest findings about Bennu’s surface were published on July 7 in a pair of papers in the journals Science and Science Advances, led respectively by Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx, based at University of Arizona, Tucson, and Walsh. These results add to the intrigue that has kept scientists on the edge of their seats throughout the OSIRIS-REx mission, as Bennu has proved consistently unpredictable.
- The asteroid presented its first surprise in December 2018 when NASA’s spacecraft arrived at Bennu. The OSIRIS-REx team found a surface littered with boulders instead of the smooth, sandy beach they had expected based on observations from Earth- and space-based telescopes. Scientists also discovered that Bennu was spitting particles of rock into space.
- “Our expectations about the asteroid’s surface were completely wrong” said Lauretta.
- The latest hint that Bennu was not what it seemed came after the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft picked up a sample and beamed stunning, close-up images of the asteroid’s surface to Earth. “What we saw was a huge wall of debris radiating out from the sample site,” Lauretta said. “We were like, ‘Holy cow!’”
- Scientists were bewildered by the abundance of pebbles strewn about, given how gently the spacecraft tapped the surface. Even more bizarre was that the spacecraft left a large crater that was 26 feet (8 meters) wide. “Every time we tested the sample pickup procedure in the lab, we barely made a divot,” Lauretta said. The mission team decided to send the spacecraft back to take more photographs of Bennu’s surface “to see how big of a mess we made,” Lauretta said.
- Mission scientists analyzed the volume of debris visible in before and after images of the sample site, dubbed “Nightingale.” They also looked at acceleration data collected during the spacecraft’s touch down. This data revealed that as OSIRIS-REx touched the asteroid it experienced the same amount of resistance – very little – a person would feel while squeezing the plunger on a French press coffee carafe. “By the time we fired our thrusters to leave the surface we were still plunging into the asteroid,” said Ron Ballouz, an OSIRIS-REx scientist based at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.
- Ballouz and the research team ran hundreds of computer simulations to deduce Bennu’s density and cohesion based on spacecraft images and acceleration information. Engineers varied the surface cohesion properties in each simulation until they found the one that most closely matched their real-life data.
- Now, this precise information about Bennu’s surface can help scientists better interpret remote observations of other asteroids, which could be useful in designing future asteroid missions and for developing methods to protect Earth from asteroid collisions.
- It’s possible that asteroids like Bennu — barely held together by gravity or electrostatic force — could break apart in Earth’s atmosphere and thus pose a different type of hazard than solid asteroids. “I think we’re still at the beginning of understanding what these bodies are, because they behave in very counterintuitive ways,” said Patrick Michel, an OSIRIS-REx scientist and director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at Côte d’Azur Observatory in Nice, France.
- Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator. The university leads the science team and the mission's science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, built the spacecraft and provides flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency's Science Mission Directorate Washington.
• April 25, 2022: Following a thorough evaluation, NASA has extended the planetary science missions of eight of its spacecraft due to their scientific productivity and potential to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the solar system and beyond. 30)
- The missions – Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover), InSight lander, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, OSIRIS-REx, and New Horizons – have been selected for continuation, assuming their spacecraft remain healthy. Most of the missions will be extended for three years; however, OSIRIS-REx will be continued for nine years in order to reach a new destination, and InSight will be continued until the end of 2022, unless the spacecraft’s electrical power allows for longer operations.
- Each extended mission proposal was reviewed by a panel of independent experts drawn from academia, industry, and NASA. In total, more than 50 reviewers evaluated the scientific return of the respective proposals. Two independent review chairs oversaw the process and, based on the panel evaluations, validated that these eight science missions hold substantial potential to continue bringing new discoveries and addressing compelling new science questions.
- Beyond providing important programmatic benefit to NASA, several of these missions promise multi-divisional science benefits across NASA’s entire Science Mission Directorate (SMD), including their use as data relays for Mars surface landers and rovers, as well as to support other NASA initiatives such as the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS).
- “Extended missions provide us with the opportunity to leverage NASA’s large investments in exploration, allowing continued science operations at a cost far lower than developing a new mission,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA’s Headquarters in Washington. “Maximizing taxpayer dollars in this way allows missions to obtain valuable new science data, and in some cases, allows NASA to explore new targets with totally new science goals.”
- Two of the extended missions, MAVEN and OSIRIS-REx, welcome new principal investigators (PIs).
- OSIRIS-APEX (Principal Investigator: Dr. Daniella DellaGiustina, University of Arizona): The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission is currently on its way back to Earth to deliver the samples of asteroid Bennu that it collected in 2020. Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx PI, will remain in place for the primary mission, while DellaGiustina begins her role as the newly named PI for OSIRIS-APophis EXplorer (OSIRIS-APEX). With a new name to reflect the extended mission’s new goals, the OSIRIS-APEX team will redirect the spacecraft to encounter Apophis, an asteroid roughly 1,200 feet (roughly 370 meters) in diameter that will come within 20,000 miles (32,000 km) of Earth in 2029. OSIRIS-APEX will enter orbit around Apophis soon after the asteroid’s Earth flyby, providing an unprecedented close-up look at this S-type asteroid. It plans to study changes in the asteroid caused by its close flyby of Earth and use the spacecraft’s gas thrusters to attempt to dislodge and study the dust and small rocks on and below Apophis’ surface.
- Note: The OSIRIS-APEX mission will have a new file on the eoPortal of ESA.
- MAVEN (Principal Investigator: Dr. Shannon Curry, University of California, Berkeley): The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission plans to study the interaction between Mars’ atmosphere and magnetic field during the upcoming solar maximum. MAVEN’s observations as the Sun’s activity level increases toward the maximum of its 11-year cycle will deepen our understanding of how Mars’ upper atmosphere and magnetic field interact with the Sun.
- InSight (Principal Investigator: Dr. Bruce Banerdt, JPL): Since landing on Mars in 2018, the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission has operated the only active seismic station beyond Earth. Its seismic monitoring of “marsquakes” has provided constraints on Mars’ interior, formation, and current activity. The extended mission will continue InSight’s seismic and weather monitoring if the spacecraft remains healthy. However, due to dust accumulation on its solar panels, InSight’s electrical power production is low, and the mission is unlikely to continue operations for the duration of its current extended mission unless its solar panels are cleared by a passing ‘dust devil’ in Mars’ atmosphere.
- Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) (Project Scientist: Dr. Noah Petro, GSFC): LRO will continue to study the surface and geology of the Moon. The evolution of LRO’s orbit will allow it to study new regions away from the poles in unprecedented detail, including the Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) near the poles where water ice may be found. LRO will also provide important programmatic support for NASA’s efforts to return to the Moon.
- New Horizons (Principal Investigator: Dr. Alan Stern, SwRI): New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015 and the Kuiper belt object (KBO) Arrokoth in 2019. In its second extended mission, New Horizons will continue to explore the distant solar system out to 63 astronomical units (AU) from Earth. The New Horizons spacecraft can potentially conduct multi-disciplinary observations of relevance to the solar system and NASA’s Heliophysics and Astrophysics Divisions. Additional details regarding New Horizons’ science plan will be provided at a later date.
- The other extended missions — Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), Mars Odyssey, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) are not covered in the eoPortal.
• April 5, 2022: NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission team received the 2022 John L. "Jack" Swigert, Jr., Award for Space Exploration by the Space Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for space exploration and space-inspired industries. 31)
- "It's humbling to be a part of such an effective mission team who made the difficult seem easy by knocking down every unexpected challenge, from the extraordinarily rugged surface of Bennu to operating in the depths of the pandemic, with the poise and perseverance that Jack Swigert personified," said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
• October 6, 2021: Using data from NASA OSIRIS-REx mission, a University of Arizona-led team of scientists concluded that asteroids with highly porous rocks, such as Bennu, should lack fine-grain material on their surfaces. 32)
- Scientists thought asteroid Bennu's surface would be like a sandy beach, abundant in fine sand and pebbles, which would have been perfect for collecting samples. Past telescope observations from Earth's orbit had suggested the presence of large swaths of fine-grain material called fine regolith that's smaller than a few centimeters.
- But when the spacecraft of NASA's University of Arizona-led OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission arrived at Bennu in late 2018, the mission team saw a surface covered in boulders. The mysterious lack of fine regolith became even more surprising when mission scientists observed evidence of processes capable of grinding boulders into fine regolith.
- New research, published in Nature and led by mission team member Saverio Cambioni, used machine learning and surface temperature data to solve the mystery. Cambioni was a graduate student at the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory when the research was conducted and is now a postdoctoral distinguished fellow in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and his colleagues ultimately found that Bennu's highly porous rocks are responsible for the surface's surprising lack of fine regolith.
- "The 'REx' in OSIRIS-REx stands for Regolith Explorer, so mapping and characterizing the surface of the asteroid was a main goal," said study co-author and OSIRIS-REx principal investigator Dante Lauretta, a Regents Professor of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona. "The spacecraft collected very high-resolution data for Bennu's entire surface, which was down to 3 millimeters per pixel at some locations. Beyond scientific interest, the lack of fine regolith became a challenge for the mission itself, because the spacecraft was designed to collect such material."
- To collect a sample to return to Earth, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was built to navigate within an area on Bennu roughly the size of a 100-space parking lot. However, because of numerous boulders, the safe sampling site was reduced to roughly the size of five parking spaces. The spacecraft successfully made contact with Bennu to collect sample material in October 2020.
A Rocky Start and Solid Answers
- "When the first images of Bennu came in, we noted some areas where the resolution was not high enough to see whether there were small rocks or fine regolith. We started using our machine learning approach to separate fine regolith from rocks using thermal emission (infrared) data," Cambioni said.
- The thermal emission from fine regolith is different from that of larger rocks, because the former is controlled by the size of its particles, while the latter is controlled by rock porosity. The team first built a library of examples of thermal emissions associated with fine regolith mixed in different proportions with rocks of various porosity. Next, they used machine learning techniques to teach a computer how to "connect the dots" between the examples. Then, they used the machine learning software to analyze the thermal emission from 122 areas on the surface of Bennu observed both during the day and the night.
- "Only a machine learning algorithm could efficiently explore a dataset this large," Cambioni said.
- When the data analysis was completed, Cambioni and his collaborators found something surprising: The fine regolith was not randomly distributed on Bennu but instead was lower where rocks were more porous, which was on most of the surface.
- The team concluded that very little fine regolith is produced by Bennu's highly porous rocks because these rocks are compressed rather than fragmented by meteoroid impacts. Like a sponge, the voids in rocks cushion the blow from incoming meteors. These findings are also in agreement with laboratory experiments from other research groups.
- "Basically, a big part of the energy of the impact goes into crushing the pores restricting the fragmentation of the rocks and the production of new fine regolith," said study co-author Chrysa Avdellidou, a postdoctoral researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) – Lagrange Laboratory of the Côte d'Azur Observatory and University in France.
- Additionally, cracking caused by the heating and cooling of Bennu's rocks as the asteroid rotates through day and night proceeds more slowly in porous rocks than in denser rocks, further frustrating the production of fine regolith.
- "When OSIRIS-REx delivers its sample of Bennu (to Earth) in September 2023, scientists will be able to study the samples in detail," said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. "This includes testing the physical properties of the rocks to verify this study."
- Other missions have evidence to confirm the team's findings. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's Hayabusa 2 mission to Ryugu, a carbonaceous asteroid like Bennu, found that Ryugu also lacks fine regolith and has highly porous rocks. Conversely, JAXA's Hayabusa mission to the asteroid Itokawa in 2005 revealed abundant fine regolith on the surface of Itokawa, an S-type asteroid with rocks of a different composition than Bennu and Ryugu. A previous study by Cambioni and his colleagues provided evidence that Itokawa's rocks are less porous than Bennu's and Ryugu's, using observations from Earth.
- "For decades, astronomers disputed that small, near-Earth asteroids could have bare-rock surfaces. The most indisputable evidence that these small asteroids could have substantial fine regolith emerged when spacecraft visited S-type asteroids Eros and Itokawa in the 2000s and found fine regolith on their surfaces," said study co-author Marco Delbo, research director with CNRS, also at the Lagrange Laboratory.
- The team predicts that large swaths of fine regolith should be uncommon on carbonaceous asteroids, which are the most common of all asteroid types and are thought to have high-porosity rocks like Bennu. In contrast, terrains rich in fine regolith should be common on S-type asteroids, which are the second-most common group in the solar system, and are thought to have denser, less porous rocks than carbonaceous asteroids.
- "This is an important piece in the puzzle of what drives the diversity of asteroids' surfaces. Asteroids are thought to be fossils of the solar system, so understanding the evolution they have undergone in time is crucial to comprehend how the solar system formed and evolved," said Cambioni. "Now that we know this fundamental difference between carbonaceous and S-type asteroids, future teams can better prepare sample collection missions depending on the nature of the target asteroid."
• June 3, 2021: NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is 328,000 miles, or 528,000 kilometers, away from the asteroid Bennu, having fired its engines on May 10 to initiate a return trip to Earth. The spacecraft is on track to deliver an asteroid sample to Earth on September 24, 2023. 33)
- Mission engineers had planned to do a small thruster firing last week to ensure the spacecraft stays on the correct path back to Earth. But, the May 10 departure maneuver was calculated and executed so precisely, the mission team decided not to do a clean-up maneuver last week.
• May 10, 2021: After nearly five years in space, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) spacecraft is on its way back to Earth with an abundance of rocks and dust from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu. 34)
- On Monday, May 10, at 4:23 p.m. EDT the spacecraft fired its main engines full throttle for seven minutes – its most significant maneuver since it arrived at Bennu in 2018. This burn thrust the spacecraft away from the asteroid at 600 miles per hour (nearly 1,000 km/hr), setting it on a 2.5-year cruise towards Earth.
- After releasing the sample capsule, OSIRIS-REx will have completed its primary mission. It will fire its engines to fly by Earth safely, putting it on a trajectory to circle the sun inside of Venus’ orbit.
- After orbiting the Sun twice, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is due to reach Earth Sept. 24, 2023. Upon return, the capsule containing pieces of Bennu will separate from the rest of the spacecraft and enter Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule will parachute to the Utah Test and Training Range in Utah's West Desert, where scientists will be waiting to retrieve it.
- “OSIRIS-REx’s many accomplishments demonstrated the daring and innovate way in which exploration unfolds in real time,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters. “The team rose to the challenge, and now we have a primordial piece of our solar system headed back to Earth where many generations of researchers can unlock its secrets.”
- To realize the mission’s multi-year plan, a dozen navigation engineers made calculations and wrote computer code to instruct the spacecraft when and how to push itself away from Bennu. After departing from Bennu, getting the sample to Earth safely is the team’s next critical goal. This includes planning future maneuvers to keep the spacecraft on course throughout its journey.
- “Our whole mindset has been, ‘Where are we in space relative to Bennu?’” said Mike Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Now our mindset has shifted to ‘Where is the spacecraft in relation to Earth?’”
- The navigation cameras that helped orient the spacecraft in relation to Bennu were turned off April 9, after snapping their last images of the asteroid. With Bennu in the rearview mirror, engineers are using NASA’s Deep Space Network of global spacecraft communications facilities to steer the OSIRIS-REx by sending it radio signals. By measuring the frequency of the waves returned from the spacecraft transponder, engineers can tell how fast OSIRIS-REx is moving. Engineers measure how long it takes for radio signals to get from the spacecraft back to Earth in order to determine its location.
Exceeding Mission Expectations
- The May 10 departure date was precisely timed based on the alignment of Bennu with Earth. The goal of the return maneuver is to get the spacecraft within about 6,000 miles (approximately 10,000 km) of Earth in September 2023. Although OSIRIS-REx still has plenty of fuel remaining, the team is trying to preserve as much as possible for a potential extended mission to another asteroid after returning the sample capsule to Earth. The team will investigate the feasibility of such a mission this summer.
- The spacecraft’s course will be determined mainly by the Sun’s gravity, but engineers will need to occasionally make small course adjustments via engine burns.
- “We need to do regular corrections to bring the trajectory increasingly closer to Earth’s atmosphere for the sample release, and to account for small errors that might have accumulated since the last burn,” said Peter Antreasian, OSIRIS-REx navigation lead at KinetX Aerospace, which is based in Simi Valley, California.
- The team will perform course adjustments a few weeks prior to Earth re-entry in order to precisely target the location and angle for the sample capsule’s release into Earth’s atmosphere. Coming in too low could cause the capsule to bounce out of the atmosphere like a pebble skipping off a lake; too high and the capsule could burn up due to friction and heat from the atmosphere. If OSIRIS-REx fails to release the capsule, the team has a backup plan to divert it away from Earth and try again in 2025.
- “There’s a lot of emotion within the team about departure,” Moreau said. “I think everyone has a great sense of accomplishment, because we faced all these daunting tasks and were able to accomplish all the objectives thrown at us. But there’s also some nostalgia and disappointment that this part of the mission is coming to an end.”
- OSIRIS-REx exceeded many expectations. Most recently, in the midst of a global pandemic, the team flawlessly executed the most mission’s critical operation, collecting more than 2 ounces (60 grams) of soil from Bennu’s surface.
- Leading up to sample collection, a number of surprises kept the team on its toes. For example, a week after the spacecraft entered its first orbit around Bennu, on Dec. 31, 2018, the team realized that the asteroid was releasing small pieces of rock into space.
- “We had to scramble to verify that the small particles being ejected from the surface did not present a hazard to the spacecraft,” Moreau said.
- Upon arrival at the asteroid, team members also were astonished to find that Bennu is littered with boulders.
- “We really had this idea that we were arriving on an asteroid with open real estate,” said Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator, based at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The reality was a big shocker.”
- To overcome the extreme and unexpected ruggedness of Bennu’s surface, engineers had to quickly develop a more accurate navigation technique to target smaller-than-expected sites for sample collection.
- The OSIRIS-REx mission was instrumental in both confirming and refuting several scientific findings. Among those confirmed was a technique that used observations from Earth to predict that the minerals on the asteroid would be carbon-rich and show signs of ancient water. One finding that proved unsuccessful was that Bennu would have a smooth surface, which scientists predicted by measuring how much heat radiated off its surface.
- Scientists will use the information gleaned from Bennu to refine theoretical models and improve future predictions.
- “This mission emphasizes why we have to do science and exploration in multiple ways – both from Earth and from up-close in space – because assumptions and models are just that,” Enos said.
- Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator. The university leads the science team and the mission's science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, built the spacecraft and provides flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency's Science Mission Directorate Washington.
• April 15, 2021: Like boot prints on the Moon, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft left its mark on asteroid Bennu. Now, new images — taken during the spacecraft's final fly-over on April 7 — reveal the aftermath of its historic encounter with the asteroid. 35)
- The spacecraft flew within 2.3 miles (3.7 km) of the asteroid — the closest it has been since the TAG (Touch-and-Go) sample collection event on Oct. 20, 2020. During TAG, the spacecraft's sampling head sunk 1.6 feet (48.8 cm) into the asteroid's surface and simultaneously fired a pressurized charge of nitrogen gas, churning up surface material and driving some into the collection chamber. The spacecraft's thrusters also launched rocks and dust during the maneuver to reverse course and safely back away from the asteroid.
- Comparing the two images reveals obvious signs of surface disturbance. At the sample collection point, there appears to be a depression, with several large boulders evident at the bottom, suggesting that they were exposed by sampling. There is a noticeable increase in the amount of highly reflective material near the TAG point against the generally dark background of the surface, and many rocks were moved around.
- Where thrusters fired against the surface, substantial mass movement is apparent. Multiple sub-meter boulders were mobilized by the plumes into a campfire ring–like shape — similar to rings of boulders seen around small craters pocking the surface.
- Jason Dworkin, the mission's project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, noticed that one boulder measuring 4 feet (1.25 meters) across on the edge of the sampling site seemed to appear only in the post-TAG image. “The rock probably weighs around a ton, with a mass somewhere between a cow and a car.”
- Dante Lauretta, of the University of Arizona and the mission's principal investigator, later pointed out that this boulder is likely one of those present in the pre-TAG image, but much nearer the sampling location, and estimates it was thrown a distance of 40 feet (about 12 meters) by the sample collection event.
- In order to compare the before and after images, the team had to meticulously plan this final flyover. "Bennu is rough and rocky, so if you look at it from a different angle or capture it at a time when the sun is not directly overhead, that dramatically changes what the surface looks like," says Dathon Golish, a member of the OSIRIS-REx image processing working group, headquartered at the University of Arizona. "These images were deliberately taken close to noon, with the Sun shining straight down, when there's not as many shadows."
- "These observations were not in the original mission plan, so we were excited to go back and document what we did," Golish said. "The team really pulled together for this one last hurrah."
- The spacecraft will remain in Bennu's vicinity until departure on May 10, when the mission will begin its two-year return cruise back to Earth. As it approaches Earth, the spacecraft will jettison the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) that contains the sample from Bennu. The SRC will then travel through Earth’s atmosphere and land under parachutes at the Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24, 2023.
- Once recovered, the capsule will be transported to the curation facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the sample will be removed for distribution to laboratories worldwide, enabling scientists to study the formation of our solar system and Earth as a habitable planet. NASA will set 75% of the sample aside for future generations to study with technologies not invented yet.
- The OSIRIS-REx mission is the first NASA mission to visit a near-Earth asteroid, survey the surface, and collect a sample to deliver to Earth.
• April 7, 2021: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx completed its last flyover of Bennu around 6 a.m. EDT (4 a.m. MDT) April 7 and is now slowly drifting away from the asteroid; however, the mission team will have to wait a few more days to find out how the spacecraft changed the surface of Bennu when it grabbed a sample of the asteroid. 36)
- The OSIRIS-REx team added this flyby to document surface changes resulting from the Touch and Go (TAG) sample collection maneuver Oct. 20, 2020. “By surveying the distribution of the excavated material around the TAG site, we will learn more about the nature of the surface and subsurface materials along with the mechanical properties of the asteroid,” said Dr. Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona.
- During the flyby, OSIRIS-REx imaged Bennu for 5.9 hours, covering more than a full rotation of the asteroid. It flew within 2.1 miles’ (3.5 km) distance to the surface of Bennu – the closest it’s been since the TAG sample collection event.
- It will take until at least April 13 for OSIRIS-REx to downlink all of the data and new pictures of Bennu’s surface recorded during the flyby. It shares the Deep Space Network antennas with other missions like Mars Perseverance, and typically gets 4–6 hours of downlink time per day. “We collected about 4,000 MB of data during the flyby,” said Mike Moreau, deputy project manager of OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Bennu is approximately 185 million miles from Earth right now, which means we can only achieve a downlink data-rate of 412 kbit/s, so it will take several days to download all of the flyby data.”
- Once the mission team receives the images and other instrument data, they will study how OSIRIS-REx jumbled up Bennu’s surface. During touchdown, the spacecraft’s sampling head sunk 1.6 feet (48.8 cm) into the asteroid’s surface and simultaneously fired a pressurized charge of nitrogen gas. The spacecraft’s thrusters kicked up a large amount of surface material during the back-away burn – launching rocks and dust in the process.
- OSIRIS-REx, with its pristine and precious asteroid cargo, will remain in the vicinity of Bennu until May 10 when it will fire its thrusters and begin its two-year cruise home. The mission will deliver the asteroid sample to Earth Sept. 24, 2023.
- NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security - Regolith Explorer). Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and provides flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
• February 8, 2021: On April 7, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will give asteroid Bennu one last glance before saying farewell. Before departing for Earth on May 10, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will perform a final flyby of Bennu – capturing its last images of sample collection site Nightingale to look for transformations on Bennu’s surface after the Oct. 20, 2020, sample collection event. 37)
- The OSIRIS-REx mission team recently completed a detailed safety analysis of a trajectory to observe sample site Nightingale from a distance of approximately 2.4 miles (3.8 km). The spacecraft’s flight path is designed to keep OSIRIS-REx a safe distance from Bennu, while ensuring the science instruments can collect precise observations. The single flyby will mimic one of the observation sequences conducted during the mission’s Detailed Survey phase in 2019. OSIRIS-REx will image Bennu for a full 4.3-hour rotation to obtain high-resolution images of the asteroid’s northern and southern hemispheres and its equatorial region. The team will then compare these new images with the previous high-resolution imagery of Bennu obtained during 2019.
- This final flyby of Bennu was not part of the original mission schedule, but the observation run will provide the team an opportunity to learn how the spacecraft’s contact with Bennu’s surface altered the sample site. Bennu’s surface was considerably disturbed after the Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection event, with the collector head sinking 1.6 feet (48.8 cm) into the asteroid’s surface while firing a pressurized charge of nitrogen gas. The spacecraft’s thrusters also mobilized a substantial amount of surface material during the back-away burn.
- During this new mission phase, called the Post-TAG Observation (PTO) phase, the spacecraft will perform five separate navigation maneuvers in order to return to the asteroid and position itself for the flyby. OSIRIS-REx executed the first maneuver on Jan. 14, which acted as a braking burn and put the spacecraft on a trajectory to rendezvous with the asteroid one last time. Since October’s sample collection event, the spacecraft has been slowly drifting away from the asteroid, and ended up approximately 1,635 miles (2,200 km) from Bennu. After the braking burn, the spacecraft is now slowly approaching the asteroid and will perform a second approach maneuver on Mar. 6, when it is approximately 155 miles (250 km) from Bennu. OSIRIS-REx will then execute three subsequent maneuvers, which are required to place the spacecraft on a precise trajectory for the final flyby on Apr. 7.
- OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to depart Bennu on May 10 and begin its two-year journey back to Earth. The spacecraft will deliver the samples of Bennu to the Utah Test and Training Range on September 24, 2023.
- NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and provides flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
• January 26, 2021: On May 10, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will say farewell to asteroid Bennu and begin its journey back to Earth. During its Oct. 20, 2020, sample collection event, the spacecraft collected a substantial amount of material from Bennu’s surface, likely exceeding the mission’s requirement of 2 ounces (60 grams). The spacecraft is scheduled to deliver the sample to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023. 38)
- “Leaving Bennu’s vicinity in May puts us in the ‘sweet spot,’ when the departure maneuver will consume the least amount of the spacecraft’s onboard fuel,” said Michael Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Nevertheless, with over 593 miles per hour (265 meters per second) of velocity change, this will be the largest propulsive maneuver conducted by OSIRIS-REx since the approach to Bennu in October 2018.”
- The May departure also provides the OSIRIS-REx team with the opportunity to plan a final spacecraft flyby of Bennu. This activity was not part of the original mission schedule, but the team is studying the feasibility of a final observation run of the asteroid to potentially learn how the spacecraft’s contact with Bennu’s surface altered the sample site.
- If feasible, the flyby will take place in early April and will observe the sample site, named Nightingale, from a distance of approximately 2 miles (3.2 km). Bennu’s surface was considerably disturbed after the Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection event, with the collector head sinking 1.6 feet (48.8 cm) into the asteroid’s surface. The spacecraft’s thrusters also disturbed a substantial amount of surface material during the back-away burn.
- The mission is planning a single flyby, mimicking one of the observation sequences conducted during the mission’s Detailed Survey phase in 2019. OSIRIS-REx would image Bennu for a full rotation to obtain high-resolution images of the asteroid’s northern and southern hemispheres and equatorial region. The team would then compare these new images with the previous high-resolution imagery of Bennu obtained during 2019.
- "OSIRIS-REx has already provided incredible science,” said Lori Glaze, NASA's director of planetary science at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "We're really excited the mission is planning one more observation flyby of asteroid Bennu to provide new information about how the asteroid responded to TAG and to render a proper farewell.”
- These post-TAG observations would also give the team a chance to assess the current functionality of science instruments onboard the spacecraft – specifically the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS), OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS), and OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA). It is possible dust coated the instruments during the sample collection event and the mission wants to evaluate the status of each. Understanding the health of the instruments is also part of the team’s assessment of possible extended mission opportunities after the sample is delivered to Earth.
- The spacecraft will remain in asteroid Bennu’s vicinity until May 10, when the mission will enter its Earth Return Cruise phase. As it approaches Earth, OSIRIS-REx will jettison the Sample Return Capsule (SRC). The SRC will then travel through the Earth’s atmosphere and land under parachutes at the Utah Test and Training Range.
- Once recovered, NASA will transport the capsule to the curation facility at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and distribute the sample to laboratories worldwide, enabling scientists to study the formation of our solar system and Earth as a habitable planet.
- Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona in Tucson is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, built the spacecraft and provides flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
• October 30, 2020: Impact craters left by space debris in the boulders on asteroid Bennu's rugged surface allowed researchers to reconstruct the history of the near-Earth object in unprecedented detail. 39)
- By studying impact marks on the surface of asteroid Bennu – the target of NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission – a team of researchers led by the University of Arizona has uncovered the asteroid's past and revealed that despite forming hundreds of millions of years ago, Bennu wandered into Earth's neighborhood only very recently.
- The study, published in the journal Nature, provides a new benchmark for understanding the evolution of asteroids, offers insights into a poorly understood population of space debris hazardous to spacecraft, and enhances scientists' understanding of the solar system. 40)
- The researchers used images and laser-based measurements taken during a two-year surveying phase in which the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, about the size of a 15-passenger van, orbited Bennu and broke the record for the smallest spacecraft to orbit a small body.
- Presented at the opening day of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences meeting on Oct. 26, the paper details the first observations and measurements of impact craters on individual boulders on an airless planetary surface since the Apollo missions to the moon 50 years ago, according to the authors.
- The publication comes just a few days after a major milestone for NASA's University of Arizona-led OSIRIS-REx mission. On Oct. 20, the spacecraft successfully descended to asteroid Bennu to grab a sample from its boulder-scattered surface – a first for NASA. The sample has now been successfully stowed and will be returned to Earth for study in 2023, where it could give scientists insight into the earliest stages of the formation of our solar system.
Impact Craters on Rocks Tell a Story
- Although Earth is being pelted with more than 100 tons of space debris each day, it is virtually impossible to find a rockface pitted by impacts from small objects at high velocities. Courtesy of our atmosphere, we get to enjoy any object smaller than a few meters as a shooting star rather than having to fear being struck by what essentially amounts to a bullet from outer space.
- Planetary bodies lacking such a protective layer, however, bear the full brunt of a perpetual cosmic barrage, and they have the scars to show for it. High-resolution images taken by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft during its two-year survey campaign allowed researchers to study even tiny craters, with diameters ranging from a centimeter to a meter, on Bennu's boulders.
- The team found boulders of 1 meter or larger to be scarred, on average, by anywhere from one to 60 pits – impacted by space debris ranging in size from a few millimeters to tens of centimeters.
- "I was surprised to see these features on the surface of Bennu," said the paper's lead author, Ronald Ballouz, a postdoctoral researcher in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and a scientist with the OSIRIS-REx regolith development working group. "The rocks tell their history through the craters they accumulated over time. We haven't observed anything like this since astronauts walked on the moon."
- For Ballouz, who grew up during the 1990s in post-civil war Beirut, Lebanon, the image of a rock surface pitted with small impact craters evoked childhood memories of building walls riddled with bullet holes in his war-torn home country.
- "Where I grew up, the buildings have bullet holes all over, and I never thought about it," he said. "It was just a fact of life. So, when I looked at the images from the asteroid, I was very curious, and I immediately thought these must be impact features."
- The observations made by Ballouz and his team bridge a gap between previous studies of space debris larger than a few centimeters, based on impacts on the moon, and studies of objects smaller than a few millimeters, based on observations of meteors entering Earth's atmosphere and impacts on spacecraft.
- "The objects that formed the craters on Bennu's boulders fall within this gap that we don't really know much about," Ballouz said, adding that rocks in that size range are an important field of study, mainly because they represent hazards for spacecraft in orbit around Earth. "An impact from one of these millimeter to centimeter-size objects at speeds of 45,000 miles per hour can be dangerous."
- Ballouz and his team developed a technique to quantify the strength of solid objects using remote observations of craters on the surfaces of boulders – a mathematical formula that allows researchers to calculate the maximum impact energy that a boulder of a given size and strength could endure before being smashed. In other words, the crater distribution found on Bennu today keeps a historical record of the frequency, size and velocity of impact events the asteroid has experienced throughout its history.
- "The idea is actually pretty simple," Ballouz said, using a building exposed to artillery fire as an analogy to boulders on an asteroid. "We ask, 'What is the largest crater you can make on that wall before the wall disintegrates?' Based on observations of multiple walls of the same size, but with different sized craters, you can get some idea of the strength of that wall."
- The same holds true for a boulder on an asteroid or other airless body, said Ballouz, who added that the approach could be used on any other asteroid or airless body that astronauts or spacecraft may visit in the future.
- "If a boulder gets hit by something larger than an object that would leave a certain size cater, it would just disappear," he explained. In other words, the size distribution of boulders that have persisted on Bennu serve as silent witnesses to its geologic past.
A Newcomer to Earth's Neighborhood
- Applying the technique to boulders ranging in size from pebbles to parking garages, the researchers were able to make inferences about the sizes and type of impactors to which the boulders were exposed, and for how long.
- The authors conclude that the largest craters on Bennu's boulders were created while Bennu resided in the asteroid belt, where impact speeds are lower than in the near-Earth environment, but are more frequent and often near the limit of what the boulders could withstand. Smaller craters, on the other hand, were acquired more recently, during Bennu's time in near-Earth space, where impact speeds are higher but potentially disruptive impactors are much less common.
- Based on these calculations, the authors determine that Bennu is a relative newcomer to Earth's neighborhood. Although it is thought to have formed in the main asteroid belt more than 100 million years ago, it is estimated that it was kicked out of the asteroid belt and migrated to its current territory only 1.75 million years ago. Extending the results to other near-Earth objects, or NEOs, the researchers also suggest that these objects likely come from parent bodies that fall in the category of asteroids, which are mostly rocky with little or no ice, rather than comets, which have more ice than rock.
- While theoretical models suggest that the asteroid belt is the reservoir for NEOs, no observational evidence of their provenance was available other than meteorites that fell to Earth and were collected, Ballouz said. With these data, researchers can validate their models of where NEOs come from, according to Ballouz, and get an idea of how strong and solid these objects are – crucial information for any potential missions targeting asteroids in the future for research, resource extraction or protecting Earth from impact.
• October 29, 2020: NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission has successfully stowed the spacecraft’s Sample Return Capsule (SRC) and its abundant sample of asteroid Bennu. On Wednesday, Oct. 28, the mission team sent commands to the spacecraft, instructing it to close the capsule – marking the end of one of the most challenging phases of the mission. 41)
- “This achievement by OSIRIS-REx on behalf of NASA and the world has lifted our vision to the higher things we can achieve together, as teams and nations,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Together a team comprising industry, academia and international partners, and a talented and diverse team of NASA employees with all types of expertise, has put us on course to vastly increase our collection on Earth of samples from space. Samples like this are going to transform what we know about our universe and ourselves, which is at the base of all NASA’s endeavors.”
- The mission team spent two days working around the clock to carry out the stowage procedure, with preparations for the stowage event beginning Oct. 24. The process to stow the sample is unique compared to other spacecraft operations and required the team’s continuous oversight and input over the two-day period. For the spacecraft to proceed with each step in the stowage sequence, the team had to assess images and telemetry from the previous step to confirm the operation was successful and the spacecraft was ready to continue. Given that OSIRIS-REx is currently more than 205 million miles (330 million km) from Earth, this required the team to also work with a greater than 18.5-minute time delay for signals traveling in each direction.
- Throughout the process, the OSIRIS-REx team continually assessed the TAGSAM's wrist alignment to ensure the collector head was being placed properly into the SRC. Additionally, the team inspected images to observe any material escaping from the collector head to confirm that no particles would hinder the stowage process. StowCam images of the stowage sequence show that a few particles escaped during the stowage procedure, but the team is confident that a plentiful amount of material remains inside of the head.
- “Given the complexity of the process to place the sample collector head onto the capture ring, we expected that it would take a few attempts to get it in the perfect position,” said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Fortunately, the head was captured on the first try, which allowed us to expeditiously execute the stow procedure.”
- By the evening of Oct. 27, the spacecraft’s TAGSAM arm had placed the collector head into the SRC. The following morning, the OSIRIS-REx team verified that the collector head was thoroughly fastened into the capsule by performing a “backout check.” This sequence commanded the TAGSAM arm to attempt to back out of the capsule – which tugged on the collector head and ensured the latches are well secured.
- “I want to thank the OSIRIS-REx team from the University of Arizona, NASA Goddard, Lockheed Martin, and their partners, and also especially the SCaN and Deep Space Network people at NASA and JPL, who worked tirelessly to get us the bandwidth we needed to achieve this milestone, early and while still hundreds of millions of miles away,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “What we have done is a real first for NASA, and we will benefit for decades by what we have been able to achieve at Bennu.”
- On the afternoon of Oct. 28, following the backout check, the mission team sent commands to disconnect the two mechanical parts on the TAGSAM arm that connect the sampler head to the arm. The spacecraft first cut the tube that carried the nitrogen gas that stirred up the sample through the TAGSAM head during sample collection, and then separated the collector head from the TAGSAM arm itself.
- That evening, the spacecraft completed the final step of the sample stowage process –closing the SRC. To secure the capsule, the spacecraft closed the lid and then fastened two internal latches. As of late Oct. 28, the sample of Bennu is safely stored and ready for its journey to Earth.
- “I’m very thankful that our team worked so hard to get this sample stowed as quickly as they did,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “Now we can look forward to receiving the sample here on Earth and opening up that capsule.”
- The stowage process, originally scheduled to begin in early November, was expedited after sample collection when the mission team received images that showed the spacecraft’s collector head overflowing with material. The images indicated that the spacecraft collected well over 2 ounces (60 grams) of Bennu’s surface material, and that some of these particles appeared to be slowly escaping from the head. A mylar flap designed to keep the sample inside the head appeared to be wedged open by some larger rocks. Now that the head is secure inside the SRC, pieces of the sample will no longer be lost.
- The OSIRIS-REx team will now focus on preparing the spacecraft for the next phase of the mission – Earth Return Cruise. The departure window opens in March 2021 for OSIRIS-REx to begin its voyage home, and the spacecraft is targeting delivery of the SRC to Earth on Sep. 24, 2023.
• October 27, 2020: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is ready to perform an early stow on Tuesday, Oct. 27, of the large sample it collected last week from the surface of the asteroid Bennu to protect and return as much of the sample as possible. 42)
- On Oct. 22, the OSIRIS-REx mission team received images that showed the spacecraft’s collector head overflowing with material collected from Bennu’s surface – well over the two-ounce (60 gram) mission requirement – and that some of these particles appeared to be slowly escaping from the collection head, called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM).
- A mylar flap on the TAGSAM allows material to easily enter the collector head, and should seal shut once the particles pass through. However, larger rocks that didn’t fully pass through the flap into the TAGSAM appear to have wedged this flap open, allowing bits of the sample to leak out.
- Because the first sample collection event was so successful, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate has given the mission team the go-ahead to expedite sample stowage, originally scheduled for Nov. 2, in the spacecraft’s Sample Return Capsule (SRC) to minimize further sample loss.
- "The abundance of material we collected from Bennu made it possible to expedite our decision to stow,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The team is now working around the clock to accelerate the stowage timeline, so that we can protect as much of this material as possible for return to Earth."
- Unlike other spacecraft operations where OSIRIS-REx autonomously runs through an entire sequence, stowing the sample is done in stages and requires the team’s oversight and input. The team will send the preliminary commands to the spacecraft to start the stow sequence and, once OSIRIS-REx completes each step in sequence, the spacecraft sends telemetry and images back to the team on Earth and waits for the team’s confirmation to proceed with the next step.
- Signals currently take just over 18.5 minutes to travel between Earth and the spacecraft one-way, so each step of the sequence factors in about 37 minutes of communications transit time. Throughout the process, the mission team will continually assess the TAGSAM’s wrist alignment to ensure the collector head is properly placed in the SRC. A new imaging sequence also has been added to the process to observe the material escaping from the collector head and verify that no particles hinder the stowage process. The mission anticipates the entire stowage process will take multiple days, at the end of which the sample will be safely sealed in the SRC for the spacecraft’s journey back to Earth.
- “I’m proud of the OSIRIS-REx team’s amazing work and success to this point,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen. “This mission is well positioned to return a historic and substantial sample of an asteroid to Earth, and they’ve been doing all the right things, on an expedited timetable, to protect that precious cargo.”
• October 23, 2020: Two days after touching down on asteroid Bennu, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission team received on Thursday, Oct. 22, images that confirm the spacecraft has collected more than enough material to meet one of its main mission requirements – acquiring at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of the asteroid’s surface material. 43)
- The spacecraft captured images of the sample collector head as it moved through several different positions. In reviewing these images, the OSIRIS-REx team noticed both that the head appeared to be full of asteroid particles, and that some of these particles appeared to be escaping slowly from the sample collector, called the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) head. They suspect bits of material are passing through small gaps where a mylar flap – the collector’s “lid” – is slightly wedged open by larger rocks.
- “Bennu continues to surprise us with great science and also throwing a few curveballs,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “And although we may have to move more quickly to stow the sample, it’s not a bad problem to have. We are so excited to see what appears to be an abundant sample that will inspire science for decades beyond this historic moment.”
- The team believes it has collected a sufficient sample and is on a path to stow the sample as quickly as possible. They came to this conclusion after comparing images of the empty collector head with Oct. 22 images of the TAGSAM head after the sample collection event.
- The images also show that any movement to the spacecraft and the TAGSAM instrument may lead to further sample loss. To preserve the remaining material, the mission team decided to forego the Sample Mass Measurement activity originally scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 24, and canceled a braking burn scheduled for Friday to minimize any acceleration to the spacecraft.
- From here, the OSIRIS-Rex team will focus on stowing the sample in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC), where any loose material will be kept safe during the spacecraft’s journey back to Earth.
- “We are working to keep up with our own success here, and my job is to safely return as large a sample of Bennu as possible,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. “The loss of mass is of concern to me, so I’m strongly encouraging the team to stow this precious sample as quickly as possible.”
- The TAGSAM head performed the sampling event in optimal conditions. Newly available analyses show that the collector head was flush with Bennu’s surface when it made contact and when the nitrogen gas bottle was fired to stir surface material. It also penetrated several centimeters into the asteroid’s surface material. All data so far suggest that the collector head is holding much more than 2 ounces of regolith.
- OSIRIS-REx remains in good health, and the mission team is finalizing a timeline for sample storage. An update will be provided once a decision is made on the sample storage timing and procedures.
• NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft unfurled its robotic arm Tuesday (20 October 2020), and in a first for the agency, briefly touched an asteroid to collect dust and pebbles from the surface for delivery to Earth in 2023. 44)
- This well-preserved, ancient asteroid, known as Bennu, is currently more than 200 million miles (321 million km) from Earth. Bennu offers scientists a window into the early solar system as it was first taking shape billions of years ago and flinging ingredients that could have helped seed life on Earth. If Tuesday’s sample collection event, known as “Touch-And-Go” (TAG), provided enough of a sample, mission teams will command the spacecraft to begin stowing the precious primordial cargo to begin its journey back to Earth in March 2021. Otherwise, they will prepare for another attempt in January.
- “This amazing first for NASA demonstrates how an incredible team from across the country came together and persevered through incredible challenges to expand the boundaries of knowledge,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Our industry, academic, and international partners have made it possible to hold a piece of the most ancient solar system in our hands.”
- At 1:50 p.m. EDT, OSIRIS-REx fired its thrusters to nudge itself out of orbit around Bennu. It extended the shoulder, then elbow, then wrist of its 11-foot (3.35-meter) sampling arm, known as the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), and transited across Bennu while descending about a half-mile (805 meters) toward the surface. After a four-hour descent, at an altitude of approximately 410 feet (125 m), the spacecraft executed the “Checkpoint” burn, the first of two maneuvers to allow it to precisely target the sample collection site, known as “Nightingale.”
- Ten minutes later, the spacecraft fired its thrusters for the second “Matchpoint” burn to slow its descent and match the asteroid’s rotation at the time of contact. It then continued a treacherous, 11-minute coast past a boulder the size of a two-story building, nicknamed “Mount Doom,” to touch down in a clear spot in a crater on Bennu’s northern hemisphere. The size of a small parking lot, the site Nightingale site is one of the few relatively clear spots on this unexpectedly boulder-covered space rock.
- “This was an incredible feat – and today we’ve advanced both science and engineering and our prospects for future missions to study these mysterious ancient storytellers of the solar system,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “A piece of primordial rock that has witnessed our solar system’s entire history may now be ready to come home for generations of scientific discovery, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.”
- “After over a decade of planning, the team is overjoyed at the success of today’s sampling attempt,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Even though we have some work ahead of us to determine the outcome of the event – the successful contact, the TAGSAM gas firing, and back-away from Bennu are major accomplishments for the team. I look forward to analyzing the data to determine the mass of sample collected.”
- All spacecraft telemetry data indicates the TAG event executed as expected. However, it will take about a week for the OSIRIS-REx team to confirm how much sample the spacecraft collected.
- Real-time data indicates the TAGSAM successfully contacted the surface and fired a burst of nitrogen gas. The gas should have stirred up dust and pebbles on Bennu’s surface, some of which should have been captured in the TAGSAM sample collection head. OSIRIS-REx engineers also confirmed that shortly after the spacecraft made contact with the surface, it fired its thrusters and safely backed away from Bennu.
- “Today’s TAG maneuver was historic,” said Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The fact that we safely and successfully touched the surface of Bennu, in addition to all the other milestones this mission has already achieved, is a testament to the living spirit of exploration that continues to uncover the secrets of the solar system."
- “It’s hard to put into words how exciting it was to receive confirmation that the spacecraft successfully touched the surface and fired one of the gas bottles,” said Michael Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The team can’t wait to receive the imagery from the TAG event late tonight and see how the surface of Bennu responded to the TAG event.”
- The spacecraft carried out TAG autonomously, with pre-programmed instructions from engineers on Earth. Now, the OSIRIS-REx team will begin to assess whether the spacecraft grabbed any material, and, if so, how much; the goal is at least 60 grams, which is roughly equivalent to a full-size candy bar.
- OSIRIS-REx engineers and scientists will use several techniques to identify and measure the sample remotely. First, they’ll compare images of the Nightingale site before and after TAG to see how much surface material moved around in response to the burst of gas.
- “Our first indication of whether we were successful in collecting a sample will come on October 21 when we downlink the back-away movie from the spacecraft,” Moreau said. “If TAG made a significant disturbance of the surface, we likely collected a lot of material.”
- Next, the team will try to determine the amount of sample collected. One method involves taking pictures of the TAGSAM head with a camera known as SamCam, which is devoted to documenting the sample-collection process and determining whether dust and rocks made it into the collector head. One indirect indication will be the amount of dust found around the sample collector head. OSIRIS-REx engineers also will attempt to snap photos that could, given the right lighting conditions, show the inside of the head so engineers can look for evidence of sample inside of it.
- A couple of days after the SamCam images are analyzed, the spacecraft will attempt yet another method to measure the mass of the sample collected by determining the change in the spacecraft’s “moment of inertia,” a phrase that describes how mass is distributed and how it affects the rotation of the body around a central axis. This maneuver entails extending the TAGSAM arm out to the side of the spacecraft and slowly spinning the spacecraft about an axis perpendicular to the arm. This technique is analogous to a person spinning with one arm extended while holding a string with a ball attached to the end. The person can sense the mass of the ball by the tension in the string. Having performed this maneuver before TAG, and now after, engineers can measure the change in the mass of the collection head as a result of the sample inside.
- “We will use the combination of data from TAG and the post-TAG images and mass measurement to assess our confidence that we have collected at least 60 grams of sample,” said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at Goddard. “If our confidence is high, we'll make the decision to stow the sample on October 30.”
- To store the sample, engineers will command the robotic arm to place the sample collector head into the Sample Return Capsule (SRC), located in the body of the spacecraft. The sample arm will then retract to the side of the spacecraft for the final time, the SRC will close, and the spacecraft will prepare for its departure from Bennu in March 2021 — this is the next time Bennu will be properly aligned with Earth for the most fuel-efficient return flight.
- If, however, it turns out that the spacecraft did not collect enough sample at Nightingale, it will attempt another TAG maneuver on Jan. 12, 2021. If that occurs, it will touch down at the backup site called “Osprey,” which is another relatively boulder-free area inside a crater near Bennu’s equator.
- OSIRIS-REx launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Sept. 8, 2016. It arrived at Bennu Dec. 3, 2018, and began orbiting the asteroid for the first time on Dec. 31, 2018. The spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth Sept. 24, 2023, when it will parachute the SRC into Utah's west desert where scientists will be waiting to collect it.
- Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
• September 21, 2020: In an interplanetary faux pas, it appears some pieces of asteroid Vesta ended up on asteroid Bennu, according to observations from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The new result sheds light on the intricate orbital dance of asteroids and on the violent origin of Bennu, which is a “rubble pile” asteroid that coalesced from the fragments of a massive collision. 45)
- “We found six boulders ranging in size from 5 to 14 feet (about 1.5 to 4.3 meters) scattered across Bennu’s southern hemisphere and near the equator,” said Daniella DellaGiustina of the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson. “These boulders are much brighter than the rest of Bennu and match material from Vesta.”
- “Our leading hypothesis is that Bennu inherited this material from its parent asteroid after a vestoid (a fragment from Vesta) struck the parent,” said Hannah Kaplan of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Then, when the parent asteroid was catastrophically disrupted, a portion of its debris accumulated under its own gravity into Bennu, including some of the pyroxene from Vesta.”
- DellaGiustina and Kaplan are primary authors of a paper on this research appearing in Nature Astronomy September 21.
- The unusual boulders on Bennu first caught the team’s eye in images from the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) Camera Suite (OCAMS). They appeared extremely bright, with some almost ten times brighter than their surroundings. They analyzed the light from the boulders using the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) instrument to get clues to their composition. A spectrometer separates light into its component colors. Since elements and compounds have distinct, signature patterns of bright and dark across a range of colors, they can be identified using a spectrometer. The signature from the boulders was characteristic of the mineral pyroxene, similar to what is seen on Vesta and the vestoids, smaller asteroids that are fragments blasted from Vesta when it sustained significant asteroid impacts.
- Of course it’s possible that the boulders actually formed on Bennu’s parent asteroid, but the team thinks this is unlikely based on how pyroxene typically forms. The mineral typically forms when rocky material melts at high-temperature. However, most of Bennu is composed of rocks containing water-bearing minerals, so it (and its parent) couldn’t have experienced very high temperatures. Next, the team considered localized heating, perhaps from an impact. An impact needed to melt enough material to create large pyroxene boulders would be so significant that it would have destroyed Bennu's parent-body. So, the team ruled out these scenarios, and instead considered other pyroxene-rich asteroids that might have implanted this material to Bennu or its parent.
- Observations reveal it’s not unusual for an asteroid to have material from another asteroid splashed across its surface. Examples include dark material on crater walls seen by the Dawn spacecraft at Vesta, a black boulder seen by the Hayabusa spacecraft on Itokawa, and very recently, material from S-type asteroids observed by Hayabusa-2 at Ryugu. This indicates many asteroids are participating in a complex orbital dance that sometimes results in cosmic mashups.
- As asteroids move through the solar system, their orbits can be altered in many ways, including the pull of gravity from planets and other objects, meteoroid impacts, and even the slight pressure from sunlight. The new result helps pin down the complex journey Bennu and other asteroids have traced through the solar system.
- Based on its orbit, several studies indicate Bennu was delivered from the inner region of the Main Asteroid Belt via a well-known gravitational pathway that can take objects from the inner Main Belt to near-Earth orbits. There are two inner Main Belt asteroid families (Polana and Eulalia) that look like Bennu: dark and rich in carbon, making them likely candidates for Bennu’s parent. Likewise, the formation of the vestoids is tied to the formation of the Veneneia and Rheasilvia impact basins on Vesta, at roughly about two billion years ago and approximately one billion years ago, respectively.
- “Future studies of asteroid families, as well as the origin of Bennu, must reconcile the presence of Vesta-like material as well as the apparent lack of other asteroid types. We look forward to the returned sample, which hopefully contains pieces of these intriguing rock types,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “This constraint is even more compelling given the finding of S-type material on asteroid Ryugu. This difference shows the value in studying multiple asteroids across the solar system.”
- The spacecraft is going to make its first attempt to sample Bennu in October and return it to Earth in 2023 for detailed analysis. The mission team closely examined four potential sample sites on Bennu to determine their safety and science value before making a final selection in December 2019. DellaGiustina and Kaplan’s team thinks they might find smaller pieces of Vesta in images from these close-up studies.
- The research was funded by the NASA New Frontiers Program. The primary authors acknowledge significant collaboration with the French space agency CNES and Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Core-to-core Program on this paper. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. The late Michael Drake of the University of Arizona pioneered the study of vestoid meteorites and was the first principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NASA is exploring our Solar System and beyond, uncovering worlds, stars, and cosmic mysteries near and far with our powerful fleet of space and ground-based missions.
• September 9, 2020: The asteroid, which is being studied by NASA's OSIRIS-REx, shows some surprising activity on its surface, and scientists are beginning to understand what might be causing it. 46)
- When NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at asteroid (101955) Bennu, mission scientists knew that their spacecraft was orbiting something special. Not only was the boulder-strewn asteroid shaped like a rough diamond, its surface was crackling with activity, shedding small pieces of rock into space. Now, after more than a year and a half up close with Bennu, they're starting to better understand these dynamic particle-ejection events.
- A collection of studies in a special edition of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets homes in on the asteroid and these enigmatic particles. The studies provide a detailed look at how these particles act when in space, possible clues as to how they're ejected, and even how their trajectories can be used to approximate Bennu's weak gravitational field.
- Typically, we consider comets, not asteroids, to be the active ones. Comets are composed of ice, rock, and dust. As those ices are heated by the Sun, the vapor fizzes from the surface, dust and chunks of the comet nucleus are lost to space, and a long dusty tail forms. Asteroids, on the other hand, are composed mainly of rock and dust (and perhaps a smaller quantity of ice), but it turns out some of these space rocks can be surprisingly lively, too.
- "We thought that Bennu's boulder-covered surface was the wild card discovery at the asteroid, but these particle events definitely surprised us," said Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and a professor at the University of Arizona. "We've spent the last year investigating Bennu's active surface, and it's provided us with a remarkable opportunity to expand our knowledge of how active asteroids behave."
- Cameras on OSIRIS-REx (short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security-Regolith Explorer) spotted rock particles being repeatedly launched into space during a January 2019 survey of the asteroid, which is about a third of a mile (565 meters) wide at its equator.
- One of the studies, led by senior research scientist Steve Chesley at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, found that most of these pebble-size pieces of rock, typically measuring around a quarter-inch (7 millimeters), were pulled back to Bennu under the asteroid's weak gravity after a short hop, sometimes even ricocheting back into space after colliding with the surface. Others took longer to return to the surface, remaining in orbit for a few days and up to 16 revolutions. And some were ejected with enough oomph to completely escape from the Bennu environs.
- By tracking the journeys of hundreds of ejected particles, Chesley and his collaborators were also able to better understand what might be causing the particles to launch from the surface of Bennu. The particle sizes match what is expected for thermal fracturing (as the asteroid's surface is repeatedly heated and cooled while it rotates), but the locations of the ejection events also match the modeled impact locations of meteoroids (small rocks hitting the surface of Bennu as it orbits the Sun). It may even be a combination of these phenomena, added Chesley. But to come to a definitive answer, more observations are needed.
- While their very existence poses numerous scientific questions, the particles also served as high-fidelity probes of Bennu's gravity field. Many particles were orbiting Bennu far closer than would be safe for the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, and so their trajectories were highly sensitive to the irregular gravity of Bennu. This allowed researchers to estimate the Bennu's gravity even more precisely than was possible with OSIRIS-REx's instruments.
- "The particles were an unexpected gift for gravity science at Bennu since they allowed us to see tiny variations in the asteroid's gravity field that we would not have known about otherwise," said Chesley.
- On average, only one or two particles are ejected per day, and because they are in a very low-gravity environment, most are moving slowly. As such, they pose little threat to OSIRIS-REx, which will attempt to briefly touch down on the asteroid on Oct. 20 to scoop up surface material, which may even include particles that were ejected before dropping back to the surface.
- If all goes as planned, the spacecraft will return to Earth in September 2023 with a cache of Bennu's material for scientists to study further.
• August 6, 2020: NASA’s first asteroid sampling spacecraft is making final preparations to grab a sample from asteroid Bennu’s surface. Next week, the OSIRIS-REx mission will conduct a second rehearsal of its touchdown sequence, practicing the sample collection activities one last time before touching down on Bennu this fall. 47)
- On Aug. 11, the mission will perform its “Matchpoint” rehearsal – the second practice run of the Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection event. The rehearsal will be similar to the Apr. 14 “Checkpoint” rehearsal, which practiced the first two maneuvers of the descent, but this time the spacecraft will add a third maneuver, called the Matchpoint burn, and fly even closer to sample site Nightingale – reaching an altitude of approximately 40 m – before backing away from the asteroid.
- This second rehearsal will be the first time the spacecraft executes the Matchpoint maneuver to then fly in tandem with Bennu’s rotation. The rehearsal also gives the team a chance to become more familiar navigating the spacecraft through all of the descent maneuvers, while verifying that the spacecraft’s imaging, navigation and ranging systems operate as expected during the event.
- During the descent, the spacecraft fires its thrusters three separate times to make its way down to the asteroid’s surface. The spacecraft will travel at an average speed of around 0.3 km/hr during the approximately four-hour excursion. Matchpoint rehearsal begins with OSIRIS-REx firing its thrusters to leave its 870 m safe-home orbit. The spacecraft then extends its robotic sampling arm – the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – from its folded, parked position out to the sample collection configuration. Immediately following, the spacecraft rotates to begin collecting navigation images for the Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) guidance system. NFT allows OSIRIS-REx to autonomously navigate to Bennu’s surface by comparing an onboard image catalog with the real-time navigation images taken during descent. As the spacecraft approaches the surface, the NFT system updates the spacecraft’s predicted point of contact depending on OSIRIS-REx’s position in relation to Bennu’s landmarks.
- The spacecraft’s two solar panels then move into a “Y-wing” configuration that safely positions them up and away from the asteroid’s surface. This configuration also places the spacecraft’s center of gravity directly over the TAGSAM collector head, which is the only part of the spacecraft that will contact Bennu’s surface during the sample collection event.
- When OSIRIS-REx reaches an altitude of approximately 125 m, it performs the Checkpoint burn and descends more steeply toward Bennu’s surface for another eight minutes. At approximately 50 m above the asteroid, the spacecraft fires its thrusters a third time for the Matchpoint burn. This maneuver slows the spacecraft’s rate of descent and adjusts its trajectory to match Bennu’s rotation as the spacecraft makes final corrections to target the touchdown spot. OSIRIS-REx will continue capturing images of Bennu’s landmarks for the NFT system to update the spacecraft’s trajectory for another three minutes of descent. This brings OSIRIS-REx to its targeted destination around 40 m from Bennu – the closest it has ever been to the asteroid. With the rehearsal complete, the spacecraft executes a back-away burn, returns its solar panels to their original position and reconfigures the TAGSAM arm back to the parked position.
- During the rehearsal, the one-way light time for signals to travel between Earth and the spacecraft will be approximately 16 minutes, which prevents the live commanding of flight activities from the ground. So prior to the rehearsal’s start, the OSIRIS-REx team will uplink all of the event’s commands to the spacecraft, allowing OSIRIS-REx to perform the rehearsal sequence autonomously after the GO command is given. Also during the event, the spacecraft’s low gain antenna will be its only antenna pointing toward Earth, transmitting data at the very slow rate of 40 bit/s. So while the OSIRIS-REx team will be able to monitor the spacecraft’s vital signs, the images and science data collected during the event won’t be downlinked until the rehearsal is complete. The team will experience these same circumstances during the actual TAG event in October.
- Following Matchpoint rehearsal, the OSIRIS-REx team will verify the flight system’s performance during the descent, including that the Matchpoint burn accurately adjusted the spacecraft’s descent trajectory for its touchdown on Bennu. Once the mission team determines that OSIRIS-REx operated as expected, they will command the spacecraft to return to its safe-home orbit around Bennu.
- The mission team has spent the last several months preparing for the Matchpoint rehearsal while maximizing remote work as part of its COVID-19 response. On the day of rehearsal, a limited number of personnel will monitor the spacecraft from Lockheed Martin Space’s facility, taking appropriate safety precautions, while the rest of the team performs their roles remotely. The mission implemented a similar protocol during the Checkpoint rehearsal in April.
- On Oct. 20, the spacecraft will travel all the way to the asteroid’s surface during its first sample collection attempt. During this event, OSIRIS-REx’s sampling mechanism will touch Bennu’s surface for approximately five seconds, fire a charge of pressurized nitrogen to disturb the surface and collect a sample before the spacecraft backs away. The spacecraft is scheduled to return the sample to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023.
• July 15, 2020: The University of Arizona has played a role in imaging and mapping most major objects in the solar system. Now, it adds the asteroid Bennu to the list. The Bennu Global Mosaic, as the complete map of the asteroid is called, is the highest resolution map of any celestial body. 48)
- As NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft prepares to briefly touch down and collect a sample from the asteroid Bennu in October, the mission's science team, led by the University of Arizona, has worked meticulously to create the highest resolution global map of any planetary body, including Earth. The endeavor is the latest in the university's long history of celestial imaging and mapping – one that began with the first lunar landings.
- The team stitched together 2,155 images – containing pixels that translate to two square inches on the surface – to create the Bennu Global Mosaic.
- "This is the finest spatial scale we've ever mapped of a planetary object," said Daniella DellaGiustina, OSIRIS-REx image processing lead scientist. "It's also unprecedented in the way we used it. Typically, when NASA chooses a landing site for an upcoming mission, they have an orbiter doing reconnaissance of the surface long before a separate mission contacts the surface. But we went to Bennu without that luxury. This paradigm of doing every step in close succession is unique and made things demanding."
- The spacecraft collected the images at distances ranging from 2.2 to 2.9 miles above the asteroid's surface between March 21 and April 11, 2019. The mosaic was completed in February.
- The detailed view of Bennu was used by the mission team during its selection of the primary and backup sample collection sites, dubbed Nightingale and Osprey, respectively.
Making a Mosaic
- There are a couple of important criteria that a useful map of Bennu's surface needed to meet. "It needed to contain minimal distortion and good lighting to get sense for texture and relief across surface," DellaGiustina said.
- Carina Bennett was up for the task. She has a background in photography, film and art, having earned a Bachelor of Arts in media arts and creative writing from UArizona and a Master of Arts in film and video production from the University of Iowa. She worked as a videographer in University Communications at UArizona nearly 10 years ago while simultaneously enrolled in computer science courses. Her computer science degree and the connections she forged while working for the university brought her to her first job on the OSIRIS-REx mission. She is now a senior engineer on the mission's image processing team.
- To create the Bennu Global Mosaic, the team first had to capture images of the surface using the PolyCam instrument.
- "PolyCam, one of the UArizona-developed cameras onboard the spacecraft, captured 7,000 images, and I narrowed those down to just over 2,100," Bennett said. "I looked for images that had the best geometry, meaning the best angle between the spacecraft and the part of the asteroid we were imaging and the best angle between the sun and that area."
- The spacecraft snapped photos from three predetermined orbital angles – in the northern hemisphere, at the equator and in the southern hemisphere – that made sure there were clear views of the entire asteroid surface and optimized the shadows of Bennu's features. While maps typically want to eliminate shadows, they were needed in this case to make the surface features pop.
- "We wanted a little shadow, but not too much and not weird angles. It was all just very meticulously planned," Bennett said.
- Then, using a 3D model of the asteroid that was created using a program that inferred the shape based on multiple photo angles, Bennett and her team overlaid the images.
- "We took a few images and manually matched them to sites scattered across the 3D shape model," she said. "If they're not lined up perfectly, they seem to wiggle when we toggled between the two. We carefully nudged the photos into place until we got a perfect match. Then, to lay the rest of the images, we used computer algorithms, which automatically matched surface features."
- This is where Bennett's photography and graphic design background came in. "One thing I can't do is use Photoshop. If we were to do that, it would compromise the scientific integrity. People get scientific information from brightness of the pixels, for example, so we don't want to smudge away the science," Bennett said. "Instead, I had to carefully choose where to divide the images. I cut through things like shadows or along crater rims instead of down the middle of a rock that was imaged from two different viewing angles. By carefully tracing the topography and matching images together like puzzle pieces, I was able to make the map a lot more seamless."
- The final global mosaic can serve as a base map to give context to future scientific data.
- "When scientists collect spectral (light) data reflected and emitted from Bennu to determine its composition, it just looks like squiggly lines and latitude and longitude coordinates," Bennett said. "So being able to then look at the corresponding location and features on the map is extremely helpful in interpreting that data."
- Individual images also aren't as useful as a high-definition map, DellaGiustina said. "This can provide data to unlock what kind of global patterns exist on Bennu and provide context to other datasets," she said.
- The global mosaic was also used for a citizen science project where anyone with an internet connection could map and measure Bennu's boulders, which will contribute to a global boulder census.
- Future mosaics, which will focus on smaller portions of the asteroid and be higher resolution, will be used for navigation of the primary and secondary sample sites.
• June 9, 2020: Close-up observations of asteroid Bennu by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft contain the first evidence of thermal fracturing of rocks on an airless body, a Nature Communications paper by Planetary Science Institute Research Scientist Jamie Molaro says. 49)
- Thermal fracturing or thermal stress weathering occurs as rocks heat and cool each day, and mechanical stresses build up that can cause cracks to develop and grow. Over time the cracks grow larger and cause the rock to disaggregate or split into multiple pieces. For example, daytime highs on Bennu can reach about 400 degrees Kelvin (260 degrees Fahrenheit), and nighttime lows plummet to 200 degrees Kelvin (-100 degrees Fahrenheit).
- “This is the first time evidence for thermal fracturing has been definitively observed on an object without an atmosphere,” said Molaro, lead author of the paper “In situ evidence of thermally induced rock breakdown widespread on Bennu’s surface“ published June 9, 2020. “It is one piece of a puzzle that tells us what the surface used to be like, and what it will be like millions of years from now.” 50)
- “This thermally induced breakdown has long been known on Earth. The OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) orbiting as close as 0.6 km (0.4 mi) has obtained images of the surface of Bennu at pixel scales down to about 1 centimeter per pixel, providing an opportunity to search over a wide range of scales for evidence of thermal breakdown occurring in situ,” Molaro said.
- “On Earth there are chemical weathering processes that help make thermal fracturing more efficient. The presence of air and moisture within cracks makes them easier to grow, and so on Earth this effect really cannot be decoupled from the effect of the thermal stresses themselves. We’ve observed evidence of thermal fracturing on Earth and on Mars, both environments where chemical weathering may play a role. Therefore, while it was theoretically possible for thermal fracturing on an airless body to occur alone, it was not clear whether or not the stresses would be strong enough to cause crack growth in absence of the chemical effects,” Molaro said.
- “Like any weathering process, thermal fracturing can cause the evolution of boulders and planetary surfaces over time; from changing the shape and size of individual boulders, to producing pebbles or fine-grained regolith, to breaking down crater walls,” Molaro said. “How quickly this occurs relative to other weathering processes tells us how quickly the surface has changed. It is one piece of a puzzle that tells us what the planetary surface used to be like, and what it will be like millions of years from now. We don’t have good constraints yet on breakdown rates from thermal fracturing, but we can get them now that we can actually observe evidence for it for the first time in-situ.
- “We show observations of boulder morphologies and fractures on Bennu that are consistent with models of thermally induced rock breakdown, and not easily explained by other weathering mechanisms. Boulders on Bennu exhibit many possible signs of thermal fracturing, but the clearest is images showing exfoliation, where thin layers of material flake off boulder surfaces,” Molaro said. “These findings provide substantive and compelling evidence that thermal fracturing plays an important role on airless body surfaces, which has major implications for understanding the evolution of asteroid surfaces, orbits, and populations.”
- Molaro’s research was funded by a grant to PSI from NASA’s Participating Scientist program.
• June 3, 2020: This view of sample site Osprey on asteroid Bennu is a mosaic of images collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on May 26. A total of 347 PolyCam images were stitched together and corrected to produce the mosaic, which shows the site at 0.2 inches (5 mm) per pixel at full size. The spacecraft took these images during an 820-foot (250-meter) reconnaissance pass over the site, which is the closest Osprey has been imaged. The pass was designed to provide high-resolution imagery to identify the best areas within the site to collect a sample. 51)
- Osprey is the backup sample collection site for the OSIRIS-REx mission. OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to make its first sample collection attempt at primary site Nightingale on Oct. 20.
• May 20, 2020: NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission is officially prepared for its long-awaited touchdown on asteroid Bennu’s surface. The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission has targeted Oct. 20 for its first sample collection attempt. 52)
- “The OSIRIS-REx mission has been demonstrating the very essence of exploration by persevering through unexpected challenges,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science. “That spirit has led them to the cusp of the prize we all are waiting for – securing a sample of an asteroid to bring home to Earth, and I’m very excited to follow them through the home stretch.”
- From discovering Bennu’s surprisingly rugged and active surface, to entering the closest-ever orbit around a planetary body, OSIRIS-REx has overcome several challenges since arriving at the asteroid in December 2018. Last month, the mission brought the spacecraft 213 ft (65 m) from the asteroid’s surface during its first sample collection rehearsal — successfully completing a practice run of the activities leading up to the sampling event.
- Now that the mission is ready to collect a sample, the team is facing a different kind of challenge here on Earth. In response to COVID-19 constraints and after the intense preparation for the first rehearsal, the OSIRIS-REx mission has decided to provide its team with additional preparation time for both the final rehearsal and the sample collection event. Spacecraft activities require significant lead time for the development and testing of operations, and given the current requirements that limit in-person participation at the mission support area, the mission would benefit from giving the team additional time to complete these preparations in the new environment. As a result, both the second rehearsal and first sample collection attempt will have two extra months for planning.
- “In planning the mission, we included robust schedule margin while at Bennu to provide the flexibility to address unexpected challenges,” said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “This flexibility has allowed us to adapt to the surprises that Bennu has thrown at us. It's now time to prioritize the health and safety of both team members and the spacecraft.”
- The mission had originally planned to perform the first Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection event on Aug. 25 after completing a second rehearsal in June. This rehearsal, now scheduled for Aug. 11, will bring the spacecraft through the first three maneuvers of the sample collection sequence to an approximate altitude of 131 ft (40 m) over the surface of Bennu. The first sample collection attempt is now scheduled for Oct. 20, during which the spacecraft will descend to Bennu’s surface and collect material from sample site Nightingale.
- “This mission’s incredible performance so far is a testament to the extraordinary skill and dedication of the OSIRIS-REx team,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “I am confident that even in the face of the current challenge, this team will be successful in collecting our sample from Bennu.”
- During the TAG event, OSIRIS-REx’s sampling mechanism will touch Bennu’s surface for approximately five seconds, fire a charge of pressurized nitrogen to disturb the surface, and collect a sample before the spacecraft backs away. The mission has resources onboard for three sample collection opportunities. If the spacecraft successfully collects a sufficient sample on Oct. 20, no additional sampling attempts will be made. The spacecraft is scheduled to depart Bennu in mid-2021, and will return the sample to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023.
• April 15, 2020: After the successful completion of its “Checkpoint” rehearsal, NASA’s first asteroid-sampling spacecraft is one step closer to touching down on asteroid Bennu. Yesterday, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft performed the first practice run of its sample collection sequence, reaching an approximate altitude of 246 feet (75 meters) over site Nightingale before executing a back-away burn from the asteroid. Nightingale, OSIRIS-REx’s primary sample collection site, is located within a crater in Bennu’s northern hemisphere. 53)
- The four-hour Checkpoint rehearsal took the spacecraft through the first two of the sampling sequence’s four maneuvers: the orbit departure burn and the Checkpoint burn. Checkpoint is so named because it is the location where the spacecraft autonomously checks its position and velocity before adjusting its trajectory down toward the location of the event’s third maneuver (Figure 37).
- Four hours after departing its 0.6-mile (1-km) safe-home orbit, the spacecraft performed the Checkpoint maneuver at an approximate altitude of 410 feet (125 meters) above Bennu’s surface. From there, the spacecraft continued to descend for another nine minutes on a trajectory toward – but not reaching – the location of the sampling event’s third maneuver, the “Matchpoint” burn. Upon reaching an altitude of approximately 246 ft (75 m) – the closest the spacecraft has ever been to Bennu – OSIRIS-REx performed a back-away burn to complete the rehearsal.
- During the rehearsal, the spacecraft successfully deployed its sampling arm, the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), from its folded, parked position out to the sample collection configuration. Additionally, some of the spacecraft’s instruments collected science and navigation images and made spectrometry observations of the sample site, as will occur during the sample collection event.
- This first rehearsal provided the mission team with practice navigating the spacecraft through both the orbit departure and Checkpoint maneuvers and with an opportunity to verify that the spacecraft’s imaging, navigation and ranging systems operated as expected during the first part of the descent sequence. Checkpoint rehearsal also gave the team confirmation that OSIRIS-REx’s Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) guidance system accurately estimated the spacecraft’s position and speed relative to Bennu as it descended toward the surface.
- The mission team has maximized remote work over the last month of preparations for the Checkpoint rehearsal, as part of the COVID-19 response. On the day of rehearsal, a limited number of personnel monitored the spacecraft’s telemetry from Lockheed Martin Space’s facility, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Arizona, taking appropriate safety precautions, while the rest of the team performed their roles remotely.
- “This rehearsal let us verify flight system performance during the descent, particularly the autonomous update and execution of the Checkpoint burn,” said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Executing this monumental milestone during this time of national crisis is a testament to the professionalism and focus of our team. It speaks volumes about their ‘can-do’ attitude and hopefully will serve as a bit of good news in these challenging times.”
- The spacecraft will travel all the way to the asteroid’s surface during its first sample collection attempt, scheduled for Aug. 25. During this event, OSIRIS-REx’s sampling mechanism will touch Bennu’s surface for approximately five seconds, fire a charge of pressurized nitrogen to disturb the surface and collect a sample before the spacecraft backs away. The spacecraft is scheduled to return the sample to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023.
• April 9, 2020: In August, a robotic spacecraft will make NASA’s first-ever attempt to descend to the surface of an asteroid, collect a sample, and ultimately bring it safely back to Earth. In order to achieve this challenging feat, the OSIRIS-REx mission team devised new techniques to operate in asteroid Bennu’s microgravity environment – but they still need experience flying the spacecraft in close proximity to the asteroid in order to test them. So, before touching down at sample site Nightingale this summer, OSIRIS-REx will first rehearse the activities leading up to the event. 54)
- On April 14, the mission will pursue its first practice run – officially known as “Checkpoint” rehearsal – which will also place the spacecraft the closest it’s ever been to Bennu. This rehearsal is a chance for the OSIRIS-REx team and spacecraft to test the first steps of the robotic sample collection event.
- During the full touchdown sequence, the spacecraft uses three separate thruster firings to make its way to the asteroid’s surface. After an orbit departure burn, the spacecraft executes the Checkpoint maneuver at 410 ft (125 m) above Bennu, which adjusts the spacecraft’s position and speed down toward the point of the third burn. This third maneuver, called “Matchpoint," occurs at approximately 164 ft (50 m) from the asteroid’s surface and places the spacecraft on a trajectory that matches the rotation of Bennu as it further descends toward the targeted touchdown spot.
- The Checkpoint rehearsal allows the team to practice navigating the spacecraft through both the orbit departure and Checkpoint maneuvers, and ensures that the spacecraft’s imaging, navigation and ranging systems operate as expected during the first part of the descent sequence. Checkpoint rehearsal also gives the team a chance to confirm that OSIRIS-REx’s Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) guidance system accurately updates the spacecraft’s position and velocity relative to Bennu as it descends towards the surface.
- Checkpoint rehearsal, a four-hour event, begins with the spacecraft leaving its safe-home orbit, 0.6 miles (1 km) above the asteroid. The spacecraft then extends its robotic sampling arm – the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – from its folded, parked position out to the sample collection configuration. Immediately following, the spacecraft slews, or rotates, into position to begin collecting navigation images for NFT guidance. NFT allows the spacecraft to autonomously guide itself to Bennu’s surface by comparing an onboard image catalog with the real-time navigation images taken during descent. As the spacecraft descends to the surface, the NFT system updates the spacecraft’s predicted point of contact depending on OSIRIS-REx’s position in relation to Bennu’s landmarks.
- Before reaching the 410-ft (125-m) Checkpoint altitude, the spacecraft’s solar arrays move into a “Y-wing” configuration that safely positions them away from the asteroid’s surface. This configuration also places the spacecraft’s center of gravity directly over the TAGSAM collector head, which is the only part of the spacecraft that will contact Bennu’s surface during the sample collection event.
- In the midst of these activities, the spacecraft continues capturing images of Bennu’s surface for the NFT navigation system. The spacecraft will then perform the Checkpoint burn and descend toward Bennu’s surface for another nine minutes, placing the spacecraft around 243 ft (75 m) from the asteroid – the closest it has ever been.
- Upon reaching this targeted point, the spacecraft will execute a back-away burn, then return its solar arrays to their original position and reconfigure the TAGSAM arm back to the parked position. Once the mission team determines that the spacecraft successfully completed the entire rehearsal sequence, they will command the spacecraft to return to its safe-home orbit around Bennu.
- Following the Checkpoint rehearsal, the team will verify the flight system’s performance during the descent, and that the Checkpoint burn accurately adjusted the descent trajectory for the subsequent Matchpoint burn.
- The mission team has maximized remote work over the last month of preparations for the checkpoint rehearsal, as part of the COVID-19 response. On the day of rehearsal, a limited number of personnel will command the spacecraft from Lockheed Martin Space’s facility, taking appropriate safety precautions, while the rest of the team performs their roles remotely.
- The mission is scheduled to perform a second rehearsal on Jun. 23, taking the spacecraft through the Matchpoint burn and down to an approximate altitude of 82 ft (25 m). OSIRIS-REx’s first sample collection attempt is scheduled for Aug. 25.
- NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
• March 9, 2020: This summer, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will undertake NASA’s first-ever attempt to touch the surface of an asteroid, collect a sample of it, and safely back away. But since arriving at asteroid Bennu over a year ago, the mission team has been tackling an unexpected challenge: how to accomplish this feat at an asteroid whose surface is blanketed in building-sized boulders. 55)
- Using these hazardous boulders as signposts, the mission team developed a new precision navigation method to overcome the challenge.
- The OSIRIS-REx team had originally planned to use a LIDAR system to navigate to Bennu’s surface during the Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection event. LIDAR is similar to radar, but it uses laser pulses rather than radio waves to measure distance. The OSIRIS-REx Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GNC) LIDAR is designed to navigate the spacecraft to a relatively hazard-free surface. The mission had originally envisioned a touchdown site 50 meters in diameter, but the largest safe areas on Bennu are much smaller. The biggest site is just 52 ft (16 m) wide, or roughly 10% of the safe area envisioned. The team realized that they needed a more precise navigation technique that would allow the spacecraft to accurately target very small sites while dodging potential hazards.
- In the face of this challenge, the OSIRIS-REx team switched to a new navigation method called NFT (Natural Feature Tracking). NFT provides more extensive navigation capabilities than LIDAR, and is key for executing what the team is calling “Bullseye TAG,” which delivers the spacecraft to the much smaller sampling area. As an optical navigation technique, it requires the creation of a high-resolution image catalog onboard the spacecraft.
- Earlier this year, the spacecraft made reconnaissance passes over the mission’s primary and backup sample collection sites, designated Nightingale and Osprey, flying as close as 0.4 miles (625 m) over the surface. During these flyovers, the spacecraft collected images from different angles and lighting conditions to complete the NFT image catalog. The team uses this catalog to identify boulders and craters unique to the sample site region, and will upload this information to the spacecraft before the sample collection event. NFT autonomously guides the spacecraft to Bennu’s surface by comparing the onboard image catalog with the real-time navigation images taken during descent. As the spacecraft descends to the surface, NFT updates its predicted point of contact depending on the spacecraft’s position in relation to the landmarks.
- On the ground, team members created “hazard maps” for both the Nightingale and Osprey sites to document all of the surface features that could potentially harm the spacecraft, like large rocks or steep slopes. The team used the image catalog in conjunction with data from the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) to create 3D maps that closely model Bennu’s topography. As part of NFT, these maps document boulder heights and crater depths, and guide the spacecraft away from potential hazards while targeting a very small site. During descent, if the spacecraft predicts it will touch unsafe terrain, it will autonomously wave-off and back away from the surface. However, if it sees that the area is free of hazards, it will continue to descend and attempt to collect a sample.
- NFT will be used in April to navigate the spacecraft during its first sample collection rehearsal. The operations team performed preliminary testing during the Orbital B mission phase in late 2019, and the results demonstrated that NFT works in real-life conditions as designed. NFT will also be used for navigation during the second rehearsal planned for June.
- OSIRIS-REx’s first sample collection attempt is scheduled for late August. The spacecraft will depart Bennu in 2021 and is scheduled to deliver the sample to Earth in September 2023.
• February 28,2020: University students and researchers working on a NASA mission orbiting a near-Earth asteroid have made an unexpected detection of a phenomenon 30 thousand light years away. Last fall, the student-built Regolith X-Ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) onboard NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft detected a newly flaring black hole in the constellation Columba while making observations off the limb of asteroid Bennu. 56)
- REXIS, a shoebox-sized student instrument, was designed to measure the X-rays that Bennu emits in response to incoming solar radiation. X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation, like visible light, but with much higher energy. REXIS is a collaborative experiment led by students and researchers at MIT and Harvard, who proposed, built, and operate the instrument.
- On Nov. 11, 2019, while the REXIS instrument was performing detailed science observations of Bennu, it captured X-rays radiating from a point off the asteroid’s edge. “Our initial checks showed no previously cataloged object in that position in space,” said Branden Allen, a Harvard research scientist and student supervisor who first spotted the source in the REXIS data.
- The glowing object turned out to be a newly flaring black hole X-ray binary – discovered just a week earlier by Japan’s MAXI telescope – designated MAXI J0637-430. NASA's Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) telescope also identified the X-ray blast a few days later. Both MAXI and NICER operate aboard NASA's International Space Station and detected the X-ray event from low Earth orbit. REXIS, on the other hand, detected the same activity millions of miles from Earth while orbiting Bennu, the first such outburst ever detected from interplanetary space.
- “Detecting this X-ray burst is a proud moment for the REXIS team. It means our instrument is performing as expected and to the level required of NASA science instruments,” said Madeline Lambert, an MIT graduate student who designed the instrument’s command sequences that serendipitously revealed the black hole.
- X-ray blasts, like the one emitted from the newly discovered black hole, can only be observed from space since Earth’s protective atmosphere shields our planet from X-rays. These X-ray emissions occur when a black hole pulls in matter from a normal star that is in orbit around it. As the matter spirals onto a spinning disk surrounding the black hole, an enormous amount of energy (primarily in the form of X-rays) is released in the process.
- “We set out to train students how to build and operate space instruments,” said MIT professor Richard Binzel, instrument scientist for the REXIS student experiment. “It turns out, the greatest lesson is to always be open to discovering the unexpected.”
- The main purpose of the REXIS instrument is to prepare the next generation of scientists, engineers, and project managers in the development and operations of spaceflight hardware. Nearly 100 undergraduate and graduate students have worked on the REXIS team since the mission’s inception.
• On February 11, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft safely executed a 620 m flyover of the backup sample collection site Osprey as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance B phase activities. Preliminary telemetry, however, indicates that the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) did not operate as expected during the 11-hour event. The OLA instrument was scheduled to provide ranging data to the spacecraft’s PolyCam imager, which would allow the camera to focus while imaging the area around the sample collection site. Consequently, the PolyCam images from the flyover are likely out of focus. 57)
- The other science instruments, including the MapCam imager, the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (OTES), and the OSIRIS-REx Visual and InfraRed Spectrometer (OVIRS), all performed nominally during the flyover. These instruments and the spacecraft continue in normal operations in orbit around asteroid Bennu.
- The mission team is currently reviewing the available data from the flyover in order to fully assess the OLA instrument. The entire data set from the flyover, including the PolyCam images, will be completely downlinked from the spacecraft next week and will provide additional insight into any impact that the loss of the OLA data may have.
- OLA has already completed all of its principal requirements for the OSIRIS-REx mission. Last year, OLA’s scans of Bennu’s surface were used to create the high-resolution 3D global maps of Bennu’s topography that were crucial for selecting the primary and backup sample collection sites last fall.
• January 22, 2020: Preliminary results indicate that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully executed a 620 m flyover of site Nightingale yesterday as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance B phase activities. Nightingale, OSIRIS-REx’s primary sample collection site, is located within a crater high in asteroid Bennu’s northern hemisphere. 58)
- The primary goal of the Nightingale flyover was to collect the high-resolution imagery required to complete the spacecraft’s Natural Feature Tracking image catalog, which will document the sample collection site’s surface features – such as boulders and craters. During the sampling event, which is scheduled for late August, the spacecraft will use this catalog to navigate with respect to Bennu’s surface features, allowing it to autonomously predict where on the sample site it will make contact . Several of the spacecraft’s other instruments also took observations of the Nightingale site during the flyover event, including the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (OTES), the OSIRIS-REx Visual and InfraRed Spectrometer (OVIRS), the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), and the MapCam color imager.
- A similar flyover of the backup sample collection site, Osprey, is scheduled for Feb. 11. Even lower flybys will be performed later this spring – Mar. 3 for Nightingale and May 26 for Osprey – as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance C phase activities. The spacecraft will perform these two flyovers at an altitude of 250 m, which will be the closest it has ever flown over asteroid Bennu’s surface.
• December 12, 2019: After a year scoping out asteroid Bennu’s boulder-scattered surface, the team leading NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission has officially selected a sample collection site. 59)
- The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex) mission team concluded a site designated “Nightingale” – located in a crater high in Bennu’s northern hemisphere – is the best spot for the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to snag its sample.
- The OSIRIS-REx team spent the past several months evaluating close-range data from four candidate sites in order to identify the best option for the sample collection. The candidate sites – dubbed Sandpiper, Osprey, Kingfisher, and Nightingale – were chosen for investigation because, of all the potential sampling regions on Bennu, these areas pose the fewest hazards to the spacecraft’s safety while still providing the opportunity for great samples to be gathered.
- “After thoroughly evaluating all four candidate sites, we made our final decision based on which site has the greatest amount of fine-grained material and how easily the spacecraft can access that material while keeping the spacecraft safe,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Of the four candidates, site Nightingale best meets these criteria and, ultimately, best ensures mission success.”
- Site Nightingale is located in a northern crater 140 meters wide. Nightingale’s regolith – or rocky surface material – is dark, and images show that the crater is relatively smooth. Because it is located so far north, temperatures in the region are lower than elsewhere on the asteroid and the surface material is well-preserved. The crater also is thought to be relatively young, and the regolith is freshly exposed. This means the site would likely allow for a pristine sample of the asteroid, giving the team insight into Bennu’s history.
- Although Nightingale ranks the highest of any location on Bennu, the site still poses challenges for sample collection. The original mission plan envisioned a sample site with a diameter of 50 meters. While the crater that hosts Nightingale is larger than that, the area safe enough for the spacecraft to touch is much smaller – approximately 16 meters in diameter, resulting in a site that is only about one-tenth the size of what was originally envisioned. This means the spacecraft has to very accurately target Bennu’s surface. Nightingale also has a building-size boulder situated on the crater’s eastern rim, which could pose a hazard to the spacecraft while backing away after contacting the site.
- The mission also selected site Osprey as a backup sample collection site. The spacecraft has the capability to perform multiple sampling attempts, but any significant disturbance to Nightingale’s surface would make it difficult to collect a sample from that area on a later attempt, making a backup site necessary. The spacecraft is designed to autonomously “wave-off” from the site if its predicted position is too close to a hazardous area. During this maneuver, the exhaust plumes from the spacecraft’s thrusters could potentially disturb the surface of the site, due to the asteroid’s microgravity environment. In any situation where a follow-on attempt at Nightingale is not possible, the team will try to collect a sample from site Osprey instead.
- "Bennu has challenged OSIRIS-REx with extraordinarily rugged terrain," said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. "The team has adapted by employing a more accurate, though more complex, optical navigation technique to be able to get into these small areas. We'll also arm OSIRIS-REx with the capability to recognize if it is on course to touch a hazard within or adjacent to the site and wave-off before that happens."
- With the selection of final primary and backup sites, the mission team will undertake further reconnaissance flights over Nightingale and Osprey, beginning in January and continuing through the spring. Once these flyovers are complete, the spacecraft will begin rehearsals for its first "touch-and-go" sample collection attempt, which is scheduled for August. The spacecraft will depart Bennu in 2021 and is scheduled to return to Earth in September 2023.
- NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and provides flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
• December 5, 2019: Shortly after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at asteroid Bennu, an unexpected discovery by the mission’s science team revealed that the asteroid could be active, or consistently discharging particles into space. The ongoing examination of Bennu – and its sample that will eventually be returned to Earth – could potentially shed light on why this intriguing phenomenon is occurring. 60)
- The OSIRIS-REx team first observed a particle ejection event in images captured by the spacecraft’s navigation cameras taken on Jan. 6, just a week after the spacecraft entered its first orbit around Bennu. At first glance, the particles appeared to be stars behind the asteroid, but on closer examination, the team realized that the asteroid was ejecting material from its surface. After concluding that these particles did not compromise the spacecraft’s safety, the mission began dedicated observations in order to fully document the activity.
- “Among Bennu’s many surprises, the particle ejections sparked our curiosity, and we’ve spent the last several months investigating this mystery,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “This is a great opportunity to expand our knowledge of how asteroids behave.”
- After studying the results of the observations, the mission team released their findings in a Science paper published Dec. 6. The team observed the three largest particle ejection events on Jan. 6 and 19, and Feb. 11, and concluded that the events originated from different locations on Bennu’s surface. The first event originated in the southern hemisphere, and the second and third events occurred near the equator. All three events took place in the late afternoon on Bennu. 61)
- The team found that, after ejection from the asteroid’s surface, the particles either briefly orbited Bennu and fell back to its surface or escaped from Bennu into space. The observed particles traveled up to 10 feet (3 meters) per second, and measured from smaller than an inch up to 4 inches (10 cm) in size. Approximately 200 particles were observed during the largest event, which took place on Jan. 6.
- The team investigated a wide variety of possible mechanisms that may have caused the ejection events, and narrowed the list to three candidates: meteoroid impacts, thermal stress fracturing, and released of water vapor.
- Meteoroid impacts are common in the deep space neighborhood of Bennu, and it is possible that these small fragments of space rock could be hitting Bennu where OSIRIS-REx is not observing it, shaking loose particles with the momentum of their impact.
- The team also determined that thermal fracturing is another reasonable explanation. Bennu’s surface temperatures vary drastically over its 4.3-hour rotation period. Although it is extremely cold during the night hours, the asteroid’s surface warms significantly in the mid-afternoon, which is when the three major events occurred. As a result of this temperature change, rocks may begin to crack and break down, and eventually particles could be ejected from the surface. This cycle is known as thermal stress fracturing.
- Water release may also explain the asteroid’s activity. When Bennu’s water-locked clays are heated, the water could begin to release and create pressure. It is possible that as pressure builds in cracks and pores in boulders where absorbed water is released, the surface could become agitated, causing particles to erupt.
- But nature does not always allow for simple explanations. "It could be that more than one of these possible mechanisms are at play," said Steve Chesley, an author on the paper and Senior Research Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "For example, thermal fracturing could be chopping the surface material into small pieces, making it far easier for meteoroid impacts to launch pebbles into space."
- If thermal fracturing, meteoroid impacts, or both, are in fact the causes of these ejection events, then this phenomenon is likely happening on all small asteroids, as they all experience these mechanisms. However, if water release is the cause of these ejection events, then this phenomenon would be specific to asteroids that contain water-bearing minerals, like Bennu.
- Bennu’s activity presents larger opportunities once a sample is collected and returned to Earth for study. Many of the ejected particles are small enough to be collected by the spacecraft’s sampling mechanism, meaning that the returned sample may possibly contain some material that was ejected and returned to Bennu’s surface. Determining that a particular particle had been ejected and returned to Bennu might be a scientific feat similar to finding a needle in a haystack. The material returned to Earth from Bennu, however, will almost certainly increase our understanding of asteroids and the ways they are both different and similar, even as the particle ejection phenomenon continues to be a mystery whose clues we’ll also return home with in the form of data and further material for study.
- Sample collection is scheduled for summer 2020, and the sample will be delivered to Earth in September 2023.
• December 4, 2019: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission is just days away from selecting the site where the spacecraft will snag a sample from asteroid Bennu. After a lengthy and challenging process, the team is finally ready to down-select from the four candidate sites to a primary and backup site. 62)
- OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission, so this decision of a sample collection site is key for asteroid operations and mission success.
- After selecting the four candidate sample sites – Sandpiper, Osprey, Kingfisher, and Nightingale – in July, the mission completed its Reconnaissance A phase. During Recon A, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft performed a month-long series of four flyovers – one over each potential sample collection site. This mission phase provided the team with high-resolution imagery in order to thoroughly examine the sampleability (fine-grained material), topography, albedo, and color of each site. The data collected from these high-altitude flyovers is central for determining which site is best-suited for sample collection.
- While the mission is one step closer to collecting a sample, Recon A observations have revealed that even the best candidate sites on Bennu pose significant challenges to sample collection, and the choice before the site selection board is not an easy one.
- “Sample site selection really is a comprehensive activity. It requires that we look at many different types of data in many different ways to ensure the selected site is the best choice in terms of spacecraft safety, presence of sampleable material, and science value,” said Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and chair of the sample site selection board. “Our team is incredibly innovative and integrated, which is what makes the selection process work.”
- The most recent images show that while there is fine-grained material (smaller than 2.5 cm in diameter), much of it may not be easily accessible. The mission was originally designed for a beach-like surface, with “ponds” of sandy material, not for Bennu’s rugged terrain. In reality the potential sample sites are not large, clear areas, but rather small spaces surrounded by large boulders, so navigating the spacecraft in and out of the sites will require a bit more fine-tuning than originally planned.
- Starting in Bennu’s southern hemisphere, site Sandpiper was the first flyover of the Recon A mission phase. Sandpiper is one of the “safer” sites because it is located in a relatively flat area, making it easier for the spacecraft to navigate in and out. The most recent images show that fine-grained material is present, but the sandy regolith is trapped between larger rocks, which makes it difficult for the sampling mechanism to operate.
- Site Osprey was the second site observed during Recon A. This site was originally chosen based on its strong spectral signature of carbon-rich material and because of a dark patch in the center of the crater, which was thought to possibly be fine-grained material. However, the latest high-resolution imagery of Osprey suggests that the site is scattered with material that may be too large to ingest for the sampling mechanism.
- Site Kingfisher was selected because it is located in a small crater – meaning that it may be a relatively young feature compared to Bennu’s larger craters (such as the one in which Sandpiper is located). Younger craters generally hold fresher, minimally-altered material. High-resolution imagery captured during the Recon A flyover revealed that while the original crater may be too rocky, a neighboring crater appears to contain fine-grained material.
- Recon A concluded with a flyover of site Nightingale. Images show that the crater holds a good amount of unobstructed fine-grained material. However, while the sampleability of the site ranks high, Nightingale is located far to the north where the lighting conditions create additional challenges for spacecraft navigation. There is also a building-size boulder situated on the crater’s eastern rim, which could be a hazard to the spacecraft when backing away after contacting the site.
- Bennu has also made it a challenge for the mission to identify a site that won’t trigger the spacecraft’s safety mechanisms. During Recon A, the team began cataloguing Bennu’s surface features to create maps for the Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) autonomous navigation system. During the sample collection event, the spacecraft will use NFT to navigate to the asteroid’s surface by comparing the onboard image catalog to the navigation images it will take during descent. In response to Bennu’s extremely rocky surface, the NFT system has been augmented with a new safety feature, which instructs it to wave-off the sampling attempt and back away if it determines the point of contact is near a potentially hazardous surface feature. With Bennu’s building-sized boulders and small target sites, the team realizes that there is a possibility that the spacecraft will wave-off the first time it descends to collect a sample.
- “Bennu’s challenges are an inherent part of this mission, and the OSIRIS-REx team has responded by developing robust measures to overcome them,” said Mike Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at Goddard. “If the spacecraft executes a wave-off while attempting to collect a sample, that simply means that both the team and the spacecraft have done their jobs to ensure the spacecraft can fly another day. The success of the mission is our first priority.”
- Whichever site wins the race, the OSIRIS-REx mission team is ready for whatever new challenges Bennu may bring. Next spring, the team will undertake further reconnaissance flights over the primary and backup sample sites, and will then start spacecraft rehearsals for touchdown. Sample collection is scheduled for summer 2020, and the sample will return to Earth in September 2023.
- NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
• August 29, 2019: A made-in-Canada laser aboard NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has produced high-resolution topographic maps of the four locations on asteroid Bennu that mission scientists have identified as candidates for sample collection. 63)
- OLA (OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter) is equipped with two lasers that scanned the asteroid's surface to produce detailed images of the boulders, craters and other geological features at each of the four sites. These maps will be crucial in helping mission scientists select the safest and most scientifically interesting of the approximately 10-meter-wide candidates – known as Nightingale, Kingfisher, Osprey, and Sandpiper.
- OLA's high-resolution results follow the activation of the instrument's LELT (Low-Energy Laser Transmitter) at the beginning of July 2019. The LELT is designed to fire 10,000 light pulses per second at the asteroid, and operates at a range of less than 1 km above Bennu's surface.
- In previous mission phases, OLA's HELT (High-Energy Laser Transmitter) – firing 100 pulses per second from greater distances – collected data that enabled the creation of the first 3D lidar map of the asteroid in April.
- By June, OLA's HELT had collected about 9 million additional measurements to complete coverage of the entire asteroid, compiling the first global map of asteroid Bennu's topography (see Figure 56).
- Mission scientists anticipate that high volumes of data collected by OLA's LELT – in the order of several billion measurements – will enable the creation of a new, higher-resolution global map, featuring one data point/7 cm and offering an unprecedented level of detail over Bennu's entire surface.
- High-resolution maps of the four potential sample sites, like that of the Sandpiper site (Figure 50), will allow OSIRIS-REx scientists to:
a) assess the safety and accessibility of each region
b) locate landmarks that will help the spacecraft navigate during sample collection
c) identify areas of fine-grained material compatible with OSIRIS-REx's sampling device.
- OLA's LELT will continue to work in tandem with other instruments on the spacecraft to gather crucial data about the surface of the asteroid. A primary and a backup site will be announced in December 2019, and the spacecraft is scheduled to begin rehearsing sampling maneuvers in early 2020.
• August 12, 2019: After months grappling with the rugged reality of asteroid Bennu’s surface, the team leading NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission has selected four potential sites for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft to “tag” its cosmic dance partner. 64)
- Since its arrival in December 2018, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has mapped the entire asteroid in order to identify the safest and most accessible spots for the spacecraft to collect a sample. These four sites (Figure 51) now will be studied in further detail in order to select the final two sites – a primary and backup – in December.
- The team originally had planned to choose the final two sites by this point in the mission. Initial analysis of Earth-based observations suggested the asteroid’s surface likely contains large “ponds” of fine-grain material. The spacecraft’s earliest images, however, revealed Bennu has an especially rocky terrain. Since then, the asteroid’s boulder-filled topography has created a challenge for the team to identify safe areas containing sampleable material, which must be fine enough – less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) diameter – for the spacecraft’s sampling mechanism to ingest it.
- “We knew that Bennu would surprise us, so we came prepared for whatever we might find,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “As with any mission of exploration, dealing with the unknown requires flexibility, resources and ingenuity. The OSIRIS-REx team has demonstrated these essential traits for overcoming the unexpected throughout the Bennu encounter.”
- The original mission schedule intentionally included more than 300 days of extra time during asteroid operations to address such unexpected challenges. In a demonstration of its flexibility and ingenuity in response to Bennu’s surprises, the mission team is adapting its site selection process. Instead of down-selecting to the final two sites this summer, the mission will spend an additional four months studying the four candidate sites in detail, with a particular focus on identifying regions of fine-grain, sampleable material from upcoming, high-resolution observations of each site. The boulder maps that citizen science counters helped create through observations earlier this year were used as one of many pieces of data considered when assessing each site’s safety. The data collected will be key to selecting the final two sites best suited for sample collection.
- In order to further adapt to Bennu’s ruggedness, the OSIRIS-REx team has made other adjustments to its sample site identification process. The original mission plan envisioned a sample site with a radius of 82 feet (25 m). Boulder-free sites of that size don’t exist on Bennu, so the team has instead identified sites ranging from 16 to 33 feet (5 to 10 m) in radius. In order for the spacecraft to accurately target a smaller site, the team reassessed the spacecraft’s operational capabilities to maximize its performance. The mission also has tightened its navigation requirements to guide the spacecraft to the asteroid’s surface, and developed a new sampling technique called “Bullseye TAG (Touch and Go),” which uses images of the asteroid surface to navigate the spacecraft all the way to the actual surface with high accuracy. The mission’s performance so far has demonstrated the new standards are within its capabilities.
- "Although OSIRIS-REx was designed to collect a sample from an asteroid with a beach-like area, the extraordinary in-flight performance to date demonstrates that we will be able to meet the challenge that the rugged surface of Bennu presents," said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "That extraordinary performance encompasses not only the spacecraft and instruments, but also the team who continues to meet every challenge that Bennu throws at us."
- The four candidate sample sites on Bennu are designated Nightingale, Kingfisher, Osprey, and Sandpiper – all birds native to Egypt. The naming theme complements the mission’s two other naming conventions – Egyptian deities (the asteroid and spacecraft) and mythological birds (surface features on Bennu).
- The four sites are diverse in both geographic location and geological features. While the amount of sampleable material in each site has yet to be determined, all four sites have been evaluated thoroughly to ensure the spacecraft’s safety as it descends to, touches and collects a sample from the asteroid’s surface.
- Nightingale is the northern-most site, situated at 56 degrees north latitude on Bennu. There are multiple possible sampling regions in this site, which is set in a small crater encompassed by a larger crater 459 feet (140 m) in diameter. The site contains mostly fine-grain, dark material and has the lowest albedo, or reflection, and surface temperature of the four sites.
- Kingfisher is located in a small crater near Bennu’s equator at 11 degrees north latitude. The crater has a diameter of 26 feet (8 m) and is surrounded by boulders, although the site itself is free of large rocks. Among the four sites, Kingfisher has the strongest spectral signature for hydrated minerals.
- Osprey is set in a small crater, 66 feet (20 m) in diameter, which is also located in Bennu’s equatorial region at 11 degrees north latitude. There are several possible sampling regions within the site. The diversity of rock types in the surrounding area suggests that the regolith within Osprey may also be diverse. Osprey has the strongest spectral signature of carbon-rich material among the four sites.
- Sandpiper is located in Bennu’s southern hemisphere, at 47 degrees south latitude. The site is in a relatively flat area on the wall of a large crater 207 ft (63 m) in diameter. Hydrated minerals are also present, which indicates that Sandpiper may contain unmodified water-rich material.
- This fall, OSIRIS-REx will begin detailed analyses of the four candidate sites during the mission’s reconnaissance phase. During the first stage of this phase, the spacecraft will execute high passes over each of the four sites from a distance of 0.8 miles (1.29 km) to confirm they are safe and contain sampleable material. Closeup imaging also will map the features and landmarks required for the spacecraft’s autonomous navigation to the asteroid’s surface. The team will use the data from these passes to select the final primary and backup sample collection sites in December.
- The second and third stages of reconnaissance will begin in early 2020 when the spacecraft will perform passes over the final two sites at lower altitudes and take even higher resolution observations of the surface to identify features, such as groupings of rocks that will be used to navigate to the surface for sample collection. OSIRIS-REx sample collection is scheduled for the latter half of 2020, and the spacecraft will return the asteroid samples to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023.
• On 12 June 2019, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft performed another significant navigation maneuver—breaking its own world record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft. 65)
- The maneuver began the mission’s new phase, known as Orbital B, and placed the spacecraft in an orbit 680 m above the surface of asteroid Bennu. The previous record—also set by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft—was approximately 1.3 km above the surface.
- Upon arrival at Bennu, the team observed particles ejecting into space from the asteroid’s surface. To better understand why this is occurring, the first two weeks of Orbital B will be devoted to observing these events by taking frequent images of the asteroid’s horizon. For the remaining five weeks, the spacecraft will map the entire asteroid using most of its onboard science instruments: the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) will produce a full terrain map; PolyCam will form a high-resolution, global image mosaic; and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) and the REgolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS) will produce global maps in the infrared and X-ray bands. All of these measurements are essential for selecting the best sample collection site on Bennu’s surface.
- OSIRIS-REx will remain in Orbital B until the second week of August, when it will transition to the slightly higher Orbital C for additional particle observations. During Orbital C, the spacecraft will be approximately 1.3 km above the asteroid’s surface.
- The OSIRIS-REx team will also use data collected from Orbital B phase to assess the safety and sample-ability (the likelihood that a sample can be collected) of each potential sample collection site. The team will then choose four possible sample sites to be thoroughly evaluated this fall during the Reconnaissance phase of the mission. Data from the Reconnaissance phase will be used to evaluate the candidate sites for further down-selection, as well as provide the closeup imaging required to map the features and landmarks necessary for the spacecraft’s autonomous navigation to the asteroid’s surface.
- Several safety requirements must be considered before sample collection. For instance, any candidate site must be clear enough of large rocks or boulders so that the spacecraft can navigate to the surface without encountering dangerous terrain. Additionally, to keep OSIRIS-REx upright during sample collection, the chosen site can’t be tilted too much compared to the sampling arm. Bennu’s unexpectedly rocky surface has made it more challenging than originally predicted to identify sites that meet both of these safety requirements. In response, the team is evaluating both spacecraft and navigation performance capabilities, which will likely enable greater precision guidance to target more confined sites.
• April 29, 2019: The study of a tiny grain of stardust - older than our solar system - is shining new light on how planetary systems are formed. The microbe-sized extraterrestrial particle, which originated from a nova explosion more than 4.5 billion years ago, was discovered inside a meteorite collected in Antarctica by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 66)
- Alongside planetary scientists at the University of Arizona (UA), the grain was studied last year at the atomic level by Associate Professor Jane Howe of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering while she was a senior scientist at Hitachi High Technologies.
- “This grain is presolar,” says Howe. “It originated before the formation of the sun. It’s just amazing to analyze such an anomaly.”
- Using advanced ion and electron microscopes, Howe and the researchers observed the arrangement of carbon atoms and its variants, known as carbon isotope anomalies, and discovered the presolar graphite grain contained oxygen-rich silicates – something they did not expect to see.
- The researchers’ observation gives new insights into the conditions of a dying star. It also contradicts the scientific hypothesis that the two types of stardust material, oxygen- and carbon-rich – which are presolar building blocks in the formation of a solar system – could not form in the same nova outburst, under the same conditions.
- The international collaboration, which includes Howe, planetary scientists, astronomers and material scientists at the University of Arizona, Washington University in St. Louis, Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Spain, and Hitachi High Technologies in the U.S. and Japan, published their findings today in Nature Astronomy. 67)
- “Sometimes research is about satisfying your curiosity. One of the greatest curiosities is how the universe was formed and how life started,” says Howe. “And this weirdo particle showed us something we didn’t know before.”
- Howe, who joined U of T Engineering in January, is currently using her electron microscopy expertise to study materials to advance renewable energy, and also plans to expand her work to include meteoritic materials science research.
- “I thought this research project was really exciting, and I’m a curious person by nature. At the time, it was just part of my job assignment, but now it’s starting to become part of my research portfolio,” says Howe.
- She hopes to further her collaboration with researchers at the University of Arizona. In addition, she recently began a collaboration with Kim Tait, an associate professor in the department of Earth sciences who is also the senior curator of mineralogy at the Royal Ontario Museum, to study its collection of meteorites.
- And, in September 2023 when the University of Arizona-led NASA OSIRIS-Rex mission returns to Earth after taking samples of carbon-rich asteroid, Bennu, Howe will be among the team of Canadian researchers to analyze its samples.
- “This kind of research, it’s part of a much larger debate of how life started on Earth. We all care about who we are and where we came from,” says Howe.“I’m so excited to be part of advancing our knowledge in this.”
• April 4, 2019: From Feb. 12 through 17, OLA (OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter) made more than 11 million measurements of the distance between OSIRIS-REx and Bennu’s surface as the spacecraft flew less than 2 km above the surface – the closest orbit ever achieved by spacecraft. OLA obtained these measurements by firing laser pulses at Bennu and measuring the amount of time it takes for the light to bounce off the asteroid’s surface and return to the instrument. That time measurement is then translated into altitude data. Using this data, the OLA team created the 3-D model of Bennu’s surface. The colors represent the distance from the center of Bennu: dark blue areas lie approximately 60 meters lower than peaks indicated in red. Some parts of the asteroid have not yet been measured, which creates gaps in the image. OLA will take nearly a billion more measurements throughout 2019 to complete the first-ever high-resolution 3D lidar map of a near-Earth asteroid. 68)
• March 19, 2019: NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made the first-ever close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid’s surface. Bennu also revealed itself to be more rugged than expected, challenging the mission team to alter its flight and sample collection plans, due to the rough terrain. 69)
- Asteroid Bennu is the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) mission, which began orbiting the asteroid on 31 December 2018. Bennu, which is only slightly wider than the height of the Empire State Building, may contain unaltered material from the very beginning of our solar system.
- “The discovery of plumes is one of the biggest surprises of my scientific career,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “And the rugged terrain went against all of our predictions. Bennu is already surprising us, and our exciting journey there is just getting started.”
- Shortly after the discovery of the particle plumes on 6 January, the mission science team increased the frequency of observations, and subsequently detected additional particle plumes during the following two months. Although many of the particles were ejected clear of Bennu, the team tracked some particles that orbited Bennu as satellites before returning to the asteroid’s surface.
- The OSIRIS-REx team initially spotted the particle plumes in images while the spacecraft was orbiting Bennu at a distance of about 1.6 km. Following a safety assessment, the mission team concluded the particles did not pose a risk to the spacecraft. The team continues to analyze the particle plumes and their possible causes.
- “The first three months of OSIRIS-REx’s up-close investigation of Bennu have reminded us what discovery is all about — surprises, quick thinking, and flexibility,” said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We study asteroids like Bennu to learn about the origin of the solar system. OSIRIS-REx’s sample will help us answer some of the biggest questions about where we come from.”
- OSIRIS-REx launched in 2016 to explore Bennu, which is the smallest body ever orbited by spacecraft. Studying Bennu will allow researchers to learn more about the origins of our solar system, the sources of water and organic molecules on Earth, the resources in near-Earth space, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.
- The OSIRIS-REx team also didn’t anticipate the number and size of boulders on Bennu’s surface. From Earth-based observations, the team expected a generally smooth surface with a few large boulders. Instead, it discovered Bennu’s entire surface is rough and dense with boulders.
- The higher-than-expected density of boulders means that the mission’s plans for sample collection, also known as Touch-and-Go (TAG), need to be adjusted. The original mission design was based on a sample site that is hazard-free, with a radius of 25 m. However, because of the unexpectedly rugged terrain, the team hasn’t been able to identify a site of that size on Bennu. Instead, it has begun to identify candidate sites that are much smaller in radius.
- The smaller sample site footprint and the greater number of boulders will demand more accurate performance from the spacecraft during its descent to the surface than originally planned. The mission team is developing an updated approach, called Bullseye TAG, to accurately target smaller sample sites.
- “Throughout OSIRIS-REx’s operations near Bennu, our spacecraft and operations team have demonstrated that we can achieve system performance that beats design requirements,” said Rich Burns, the project manager of OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Bennu has issued us a challenge to deal with its rugged terrain, and we are confident that OSIRIS-REx is up to the task.”
- The original, low-boulder estimate was derived both from Earth-based observations of Bennu’s thermal inertia — or its ability to conduct and store heat — and from radar measurements of its surface roughness. Now that OSIRIS-REx has revealed Bennu’s surface up close, those expectations of a smoother surface have been proven wrong. This suggests the computer models used to interpret previous data do not adequately predict the nature of small, rocky, asteroid surfaces. The team is revising these models with the data from Bennu.
- The OSIRIS-REx science team has made many other discoveries about Bennu in the three months since the spacecraft arrived at the asteroid, some of which were presented Tuesday at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Conference in Houston and in a special collection of papers issued by the journal Nature.
- The team has directly observed a change in the spin rate of Bennu as a result of what is known as the Yarkovsky-O'Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack (YORP) effect. The uneven heating and cooling of Bennu as it rotates in sunlight is causing the asteroid to increase its rotation speed. As a result, Bennu's rotation period is decreasing by about one second every 100 years. Separately, two of the spacecraft’s instruments, the MapCam color imager and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), have made detections of magnetite on Bennu’s surface, which bolsters earlier findings indicating the interaction of rock with liquid water on Bennu’s parent body.
- Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering, and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
• March 14, 2019: This trio of images acquired by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft shows a wide shot and two close-ups of a region in asteroid Bennu’s northern hemisphere. The wide-angle image (left), obtained by the spacecraft’s MapCam camera, shows a 180 m wide area with many rocks, including some large boulders, and a “pond” of regolith that is mostly devoid of large rocks. The two closer images, obtained by the high-resolution PolyCam camera, show details of areas in the MapCam image, specifically a 15 m boulder (top) and the regolith pond (bottom). The PolyCam frames are 31 m across and the boulder depicted is approximately the same size as a humpback whale. 70)
- The observation plan for this day provided for one MapCam and two PolyCam images every 10 minutes, allowing for this combination of context and detail of Bennu’s surface.
• February 20, 2019: During the mission’s orbital phase, OSIRIS-REx circles the asteroid near Bennu’s terminator line. While this positioning helps maintain the spacecraft in a stable orbit, the half-light/half-dark view of the asteroid creates challenging conditions for science imaging. 71)
• December 31, 2018: At 2:43 p.m. EST on December 31, while many on Earth prepared to welcome the New Year, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) away, carried out a single, eight-second burn of its thrusters – and broke a space exploration record. The spacecraft entered into orbit around the asteroid Bennu, and made Bennu the smallest object ever to be orbited by a spacecraft. 72)
- “The team continued our long string of successes by executing the orbit-insertion maneuver perfectly,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “With the navigation campaign coming to an end, we are looking forward to the scientific mapping and sample site selection phase of the mission.”
- The gravity of Bennu is so small, forces like solar radiation and thermal pressure from Bennu’s surface become much more relevant and can push the spacecraft around in its orbit much more than if it were orbiting around Earth or Mars, where gravity is by far the most dominant force.
- Inching around the asteroid at a snail’s pace, OSIRIS-REx’s first orbit marks a leap for humankind. Never before has a spacecraft from Earth circled so close to such a small space object – one with barely enough gravity to keep a vehicle in a stable orbit.
- Now, the spacecraft will circle Bennu about 1.75 km from its center, closer than any other spacecraft has come to its celestial object of study. (Previously the closest orbit of a planetary body was in May 2016, when the Rosetta spacecraft orbited about 7 km from the center of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comfortable distance is necessary to keep the spacecraft locked to Bennu, which has a gravity force only 5-millionths as strong as Earth’s. The spacecraft is scheduled to orbit Bennu through mid-February at a leisurely 62 hours per orbit.
- Now that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is closer to Bennu, physical details about the asteroid will leap into sharper focus, and the spacecraft’s tour of this rubble pile of primordial debris will become increasingly detailed and focused.
- “Our orbit design is highly dependent on Bennu’s physical properties, such as its mass and gravity field, which we didn’t know before we arrived,” said OSIRIS-REx’s flight dynamics system manager Mike Moreau, who is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Up until now, we had to account for a wide variety of possible scenarios in our computer simulations to make sure we could safely navigate the spacecraft so close to Bennu. As the team learned more about the asteroid, we incorporated new information to hone in on the final orbit design,” he said.
- The simulations have played a critical role. The OSIRIS-REx mission, after all, was designed based on complex computer programs that predicted — quite accurately, as it turns out — the properties of Bennu and how the spacecraft’s trajectory would behave. This diligent preparation allowed the team to navigate the vehicle safely to Bennu in December and put some questions to rest (there are, indeed, signs of ancient water preserved in Bennu’s rocks) and to fly over its poles and equator in a preliminary survey that led to some surprises (Bennu has many large boulders).
- Having completed the preliminary survey of Bennu with a flyby of its south pole on 16 December, the spacecraft moved to a safe 50 km away from the asteroid to give the navigation team a chance to regroup and prepare for orbit insertion. Next, Lockheed Martin engineers programmed the spacecraft to begin moving back to a position about 15 km over Bennu’s north pole to prepare for three burns of its thrusters over the course of 10 days that would place the spacecraft into orbit.
- Even though OSIRIS-REx is in the most stable orbit possible, Bennu’s gravitational pull is so tenuous that keeping the spacecraft safe will require occasional adjustments, said Dan Wibben, OSIRIS-REx maneuver and trajectory design lead at KinetX Aerospace in Simi Valley, California.
- The OSIRIS-REx navigation team will use “trim” maneuvers to slightly thrust the spacecraft in one direction or another to correct its orbit and counter these small forces. If the spacecraft drifts away from Bennu, or some other problem forces it into safe mode, it has been programmed to fly away from the asteroid to stay safe from impact.
- “It’s simple logic: always burn toward the Sun if something goes wrong,” said Coralie Adam, OSIRIS-REx lead optical navigation engineer at KinetX. Engineers can navigate the spacecraft back into orbit if it drifts away, Adam said, though that’s unlikely to happen.
- The navigation and spacecraft operations teams are focused on the first orbital phase. Their primary goal is to transition away from star-based navigation, which allowed the team to locate the spacecraft based on pictures of the star formations around it taken by the cameras onboard. Navigators use methods like this since there is no GPS in deep space and we can’t see the spacecraft from Earth-based telescopes. From this point forward, though, the OSIRIS-REx team will rely on landmarks on Bennu’s surface to track OSIRIS-REx, a more precise technique that will ultimately guide them to a sample-collection site clear of boulders and large rocks, said Adam.
- “After conducting a global imaging and mapping campaign during our recent preliminary survey phase, the science team has created 3-D models of Bennu’s terrain that we’re going to begin using for navigation around the asteroid,” she said.
- Another critical objective of this orbital phase, Adam said, is to get a better handle on Bennu’s mass and gravity, features that will influence the planning of the rest of the mission, notably the short touchdown on the surface for sample collection in 2020. In the case of Bennu, scientists can only measure these features by getting OSIRIS-REx very close to the surface to see how its trajectory bends from Bennu’s gravitational pull.
- “The Orbital A phase will help improve our detailed models for Bennu’s gravity field, thermal properties, orientation, and spin rate,” said Wibben. “This, in turn, will allow us to refine our trajectory designs for the even more challenging flight activities we will perform in 2019.”
- The 31 December maneuver to place the spacecraft into orbit about Bennu is the first of many exciting navigation activities planned for the mission. The OSIRIS-REx team will resume science operations in late February. At that point, the spacecraft will perform a series of close flybys of Bennu for several months to take high-resolution images of every square inch of the asteroid to help select a sampling site. During the summer of 2020, the spacecraft will briefly touch the surface of Bennu to retrieve a sample. The OSIRIS-REx mission is scheduled to deliver the sample to Earth in September 2023.
• December 10, 2018: Recently analyzed data from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission has revealed water locked inside the clays that make up its scientific target, the asteroid Bennu. 73)
- During the mission’s approach phase, between mid-August and early December, the spacecraft traveled 2.2 million km on its journey from Earth to arrive at a location 19 km from Bennu on 3 December. During this time, the science team on Earth aimed three of the spacecraft’s instruments towards Bennu and began making the mission’s first scientific observations of the asteroid.
- Data obtained from the spacecraft’s two spectrometers, the OVIRS (OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer) and the OTES (OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer), reveal the presence of molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together, known as “hydroxyls.” The team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, Bennu’s rocky material interacted with water. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.
- “The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” said Amy Simon, OVIRS deputy instrument scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system.”
- Additionally, data obtained from OCAMS (OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite) corroborate ground-based telescopic observations of Bennu and confirm the original model developed in 2013 by OSIRIS-REx Science Team Chief Michael Nolan and collaborators. That model closely predicted the asteroid’s actual shape, with Bennu’s diameter, rotation rate, inclination, and overall shape presented almost exactly as projected.
- One outlier from the predicted shape model is the size of the large boulder near Bennu’s south pole. The ground-based shape model calculated this boulder to be at least 10 meters in height. Preliminary calculations from OCAMS observations show that the boulder is closer to 50 meters in height, with a width of approximately 55 meters.
- Bennu’s surface material is a mix of very rocky, boulder-filled regions and a few relatively smooth regions that lack boulders. However, the quantity of boulders on the surface is higher than expected. The team will make further observations at closer ranges to more accurately assess where a sample can be taken on Bennu to later be returned to Earth.
- “Our initial data show that the team picked the right asteroid as the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission. We have not discovered any insurmountable issues at Bennu so far,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The spacecraft is healthy and the science instruments are working better than required. It is time now for our adventure to begin.”
- The mission currently is performing a preliminary survey of the asteroid, flying the spacecraft in passes over Bennu’s north pole, equator, and south pole at ranges as close as 7 km to better determine the asteroid’s mass. The mission’s scientists and engineers must know the mass of the asteroid in order to design the spacecraft’s insertion into orbit because mass affects the asteroid’s gravitational pull on the spacecraft. Knowing Bennu’s mass will also help the science team understand the asteroid’s structure and composition.
- This survey also provides the first opportunity for OLA (OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter), an instrument contributed by the Canadian Space Agency, to make observations, now that the spacecraft is in proximity to Bennu.
- The spacecraft’s first orbital insertion is scheduled for 31 December, and OSIRIS-REx will remain in orbit until mid-February 2019, when it exits to initiate another series of flybys for the next survey phase. During the first orbital phase, the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid at a range of 1.4-2.0 km from the center of Bennu — setting new records for the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft and the closest orbit of a planetary body by any spacecraft.
• December 6, 2018: On 3 December, after traveling billions of kilometers from Earth, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft reached its target, Bennu, and kicked off a nearly two-year, up-close investigation of the asteroid. It will inspect nearly every square inch of this ancient clump of rubble left over from the formation of our solar system. Ultimately, the spacecraft will pick up a sample of pebbles and dust from Bennu's surface and deliver it to Earth in 2023. 74)
- Generations of planetary scientists will get to study pieces of the primitive materials that formed our cosmic neighborhood and to better understand the role asteroids may have played in delivering life-forming compounds to planets and moons.
- But it's not just history that the mission to Bennu will help uncover. Scientists studying the rock through OSIRIS-REx's instruments in space will also shape our future. As they collect the most detailed information yet about the forces that move asteroids, experts from NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office, who are responsible for detecting potentially hazardous asteroids, will improve their predictions of which ones could be on a crash-course with our planet.
Here is how the OSIRIS-REx mission will support this work:
- How scientists predict Bennu's whereabouts: About 500 m in size, Bennu is large enough to reach Earth's surface; many smaller space objects, in contrast, burn up in our atmosphere. If it impacted Earth, Bennu would cause widespread damage. Asteroid experts at the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, project that Bennu will come close enough to Earth over the next century to pose a 1 in 2,700 chance of impacting it between 2175 and 2196. Put another way, those odds mean there is a 99.963 percent chance the asteroid will miss the Earth. Even so, astronomers want to know exactly where Bennu is located at all times.
- Astronomers have estimated Bennu's future trajectory after observing it several times since it was discovered in 1999. They've turned their optical, infrared and radio telescopes toward the asteroid every time it came close enough to Earth, about every six years, to deduce features such as its shape, rotation rate and trajectory.
- "We know within a few kilometers where Bennu is right now," said Steven Chesley, senior research scientist at CNEOS and an OSIRIS-REx team member whose job it is to predict Bennu's future trajectory.
- Why Bennu's future trajectory predictions get fuzzy: Scientists have estimated Bennu's trajectory around the Sun far into the future. Their predictions are informed by ground observations and mathematical calculations that account for the gravitational nudging of Bennu by the Sun, the Moon, planets and other asteroids, plus non-gravitational factors.
- Given these parameters, astronomers can predict the next four exact dates (in September of 2054, 2060, 2080 and 2135) that Bennu will come within 5 million miles (7.5 million kilometers or .05 astronomical units) of Earth. That's close enough that Earth's gravity will slightly bend Bennu's orbital path as it passes by. As a result, the uncertainty about where the asteroid will be each time it loops back around the Sun will grow, causing predictions about Bennu's future orbit to become increasingly hazy after 2060.
- In 2060, Bennu will pass Earth at about twice the distance from here to the Moon. But it could pass at any point in a 30-kilometer window of space. A very small difference in position within that window will get magnified enormously in future orbits and make it increasingly hard to predict Bennu's trajectory.
- As a result, when this asteroid comes back near Earth in 2080, according to Chesley's calculations, the best window we can get on its whereabouts is nearly 9,000 miles (14,000 kilometers) wide. By 2135, when Bennu's shifted orbit is expected to bring it closer than the Moon, its flyby window grows wider, to nearly 100,000 miles (160,000 kilometers). This will be Bennu's closest approach to Earth over the five centuries for which we have reliable calculations.
- "Right now, Bennu has the best orbit of any asteroid in our database," Chesley said. "And yet, after that encounter in 2135, we really can't say exactly where it is headed."
- There's another phenomenon nudging Bennu's orbit and muddying future impact projections. It's called the Yarkovsky effect. Having nothing to do with gravity, the Yarkovsky effect sways Bennu's orbit because of heat from the Sun.
- "There are a lot of factors that might affect the predictability of Bennu's trajectory in the future, but most of them are relatively small," says William Bottke, an asteroid expert at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a participating scientist on the OSIRIS-REx mission. "The one that's most sizeable is Yarkvovsky."
- This heat nudge was named after the Polish civil engineer who first described it in 1901: Ivan Osipovich Yarkovsky. He suggested that sunlight warms one side of a small, dark asteroid and some hours later radiates that heat away as the asteroid rotates its hot side into cold darkness. This thrusts the rock pile a bit, either toward the Sun or away from it, depending on the direction of its rotation.
- In Bennu's case, astronomers have calculated that the Yarkovsky effect has shifted its orbit about 0.18 miles (284 meters) per year toward the Sun since 1999. In fact, it helped deliver Bennu to our part of the solar system, in the first place, from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter over billions of years. Now, Yarkovsky is complicating our efforts to make predictions about Bennu's path relative to Earth.
- Getting face-to-face with the asteroid will help: The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will use its suite of instruments to transmit radio tracking signals and capture optical images of Bennu that will help NASA scientists determine its precise position in the solar system and its exact orbital path. Combined with existing, ground-based observations, the space measurements will help clarify how Bennu's orbit is changing over time.
- Additionally, astronomers will get to test their understanding of the Yarkovksy effect on a real-life asteroid for the first time. They will instruct the spacecraft to follow Bennu in its orbit about the Sun for about two years to see whether it's moving along an expected path based on gravity and Yarkovsky theories. Any differences between the predictions and reality could be used to refine models of the Yarkovsky effect.
- But even more significant to understanding Yarkovsky better will be the thermal measurements of Bennu. During its mission, OSIRIS-REx will track how much solar heat radiates off the asteroid, and where on the surface it's coming from-data that will help confirm and refine calculations of the Yarkovsky effect on asteroids.
- The spacecraft also will address some open questions about the Yarkovsky theory. One of them, said Chesley, is how do boulders and craters on the surface of an asteroid change the way photons scatter off of it as it cools, carrying away momentum from the hotter side and thereby nudging the asteroid in the opposite direction? OSIRIS-REx will help scientists understand by mapping the rockiness of Bennu's surface.
- "We know surface roughness is going to affect the Yarkovsky effect; we have models" said Chesley. "But the models are speculative. No one has been able to test them."
- After the OSIRIS-REx mission, Chesley said, NASA's trajectory projections for Bennu will be about 60 times better than they are now.
• December 3, 2018: NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft completed its 1.2 billion-mile (2 billion-kilometer) journey to arrive at the asteroid Bennu Monday. The spacecraft executed a maneuver that transitioned it from flying toward Bennu to operating around the asteroid. 75)
- Now, at about 19 km from Bennu’s Sun-facing surface, OSIRIS-REx will begin a preliminary survey of the asteroid. The spacecraft will commence flyovers of Bennu’s north pole, equatorial region, and south pole, getting as close as nearly 7 km above Bennu during each flyover.
- The primary science goals of this survey are to refine estimates of Bennu’s mass and spin rate, and to generate a more precise model of its shape. The data will help determine potential sites for later sample collection.
- OSIRIS-REx’s mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth. Asteroids are remnants of the building blocks that formed the planets and enabled life. Those like Bennu contain natural resources, such as water, organics and metals. Future space exploration and economic development may rely on asteroids for these materials.
- “As explorers, we at NASA have never shied away from the most extreme challenges in the solar system in our quest for knowledge,” said Lori Glaze, acting director for NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Now we’re at it again, working with our partners in the U.S. and Canada to accomplish the Herculean task of bringing back to Earth a piece of the early solar system.”
- The mission’s navigation team will use the preliminary survey of Bennu to practice the delicate task of navigating around the asteroid. The spacecraft will enter orbit around Bennu on 31 December — thus making Bennu, which is only about 492 m across — or about the length of five football fields — the smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft. It’s a critical step in OSIRIS-REx’s years-long quest to collect and eventually deliver at least 60 grams of regolith — dirt and rocks — from Bennu to Earth.
- Starting in October, OSIRIS-REx performed a series of braking maneuvers to slow the spacecraft down as it approached Bennu. These maneuvers also targeted a trajectory to set up Monday’s maneuver, which initiates the first north pole flyover and marks the spacecraft's arrival at Bennu.
- “The OSIRIS-REx team is proud to cross another major milestone off our list — asteroid arrival,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “Initial data from the approach phase show this object to have exceptional scientific value. We can’t wait to start our exploration of Bennu in earnest. We’ve been preparing for this moment for years, and we’re ready.”
- OSIRIS-REx mission marks many firsts in space exploration. It will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era. It’s the first to study a primitive B-type asteroid, which is an asteroid that’s rich in carbon and organic molecules that make up life on Earth. It is also the first mission to study a potentially hazardous asteroid and try to determine the factors that alter their courses to bring them close to Earth.
- “During our approach toward Bennu, we have taken observations at much higher resolution than were available from Earth,” said Rich Burns, the project manager of OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “These observations have revealed an asteroid that is both consistent with our expectations from ground-based measurements and an exceptionally interesting small world. Now we embark on gaining experience flying our spacecraft about such a small body."
- When OSIRIS-REx begins to orbit Bennu at the end of this month, it will come close to approximately 1.25 km to its surface. In February 2019, the spacecraft begins efforts to globally map Bennu to determine the best site for sample collection. After the collection site is selected, the spacecraft will briefly touch the surface of Bennu to retrieve a sample. OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to return the sample to Earth in September 2023.
- Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
• November 22, 2018: Every so often, we get a reminder of just how small our planet is in the context of the vast cosmos. We also get a reminder of the great things we can achieve as a species that loves to explore. 76)
- In January 2018, one of our latest space explorers sent back a distant view of our tiny, beautiful home. The OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security–Regolith Explorer) spacecraft looked back across a distance of nearly 64 million kilometers and saw the Earth and Moon as a few pixels of reflected sunlight. The image was acquired by the NavCam1 imager on January 17, 2018, as part of an engineering test. The spacecraft was moving away from Earth at a speed of 8.5 km/s (19,000 miles per hour).
- Earth is the largest, brightest spot in the center of the image, with the smaller, dimmer Moon to the right. Some stars are faintly visible, such as the five stars comprising the head of Cetus, which surround the Earth and Moon in this view.
- OSIRIS-REx was launched in September 2016, and it has spent the past two years hurtling across the solar system toward Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid formerly known as 1999 RQ36. The spacecraft is scheduled to arrive within 20 km of the surface on December 3, 2018, to begin a closeup survey. It will eventually grab a sample of the asteroid and carry it back to Earth by 2023. Through this expedition, scientists plan to investigate how planets formed and how life began, while also trying to learn more about asteroids that could impact Earth.
- Astronomer and author Phil Plait found poetry in the image and in the plight of OSIRIS-REx. “We send a piece of ourselves, a proxy, out into the night to see some of these points of light up close so that we may understand them. ... And in reality, in truth and in fact, this is just an extension of our standing outside on a clear night and watching the stars. ... It’s easy to sit at a computer and forget that what you’re seeing is real, it’s a place, just as real and substantive as the world beneath your feet. They [the spacecraft] see what we see, and we see what they see, because they are us. An extension of us, but us nonetheless. When we send spacecraft into the solar system, we are sending pieces of ourselves.”
• November 2018: Since OSIRIS-REx began Approach Phase and captured its first glimpse of asteroid Bennu in August, the spacecraft has been imaging the asteroid at higher and higher resolution. This view, captured with PolyCam on Nov. 2, shows Bennu rotating for one full revolution over the course of about four hours. At the time, Bennu was approximately 122 miles (197 km) from the spacecraft and appeared about 200 pixels wide in PolyCam’s frame. 77)
• On 14 November 2018, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft stretched out its robotic sampling arm for the first time in space. The arm, more formally known as the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism), is key to the spacecraft achieving the primary goal of the mission: returning a sample from asteroid Bennu in 2023. 78)
- As planned, engineers at Lockheed Martin commanded the spacecraft to move the arm through its full range of motion – flexing its shoulder, elbow, and wrist “joints.” This long-awaited stretch, which was confirmed by telemetry data and imagery captured by the spacecraft’s SamCam camera, demonstrates that the TAGSAM head is ready to collect a sample of loose dirt and rock (called regolith) from Bennu’s surface.
- “The TAGSAM exercise is an important milestone, as the prime objective of the OSIRIS-REx mission is to return a sample of Bennu to Earth,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “This successful test shows that, when the time comes, TAGSAM is ready to reach out and tag the asteroid.”
- Years of innovation: Lockheed Martin engineers spent more than a decade designing, building, and testing TAGSAM, which includes a 3.35 m arm with three articulating joints, a round sampler head at the end of the arm that resembles the air filter in a car, and three bottles of high-pressure nitrogen gas.
- This test deployment was a rehearsal for a date in mid-2020 when the spacecraft will unfold the TAGSAM arm again, slowly descend to Bennu’s surface, and briefly touch the asteroid with the sampler head. A burst of nitrogen gas will stir up regolith on the asteroid’s surface, which will be caught in the TAGSAM head. The TAG sequence will take about five seconds, after which the spacecraft will execute small maneuvers to carefully back away from Bennu. Afterward, SamCam will image the sampler head, as it did during the test deployment, to help confirm that TAGSAM collected at least 60 grams of regolith.
- The TAGSAM mechanism was designed for the key challenge unique to the OSIRIS-REx mission: collecting a sample from the smallest planetary body ever to be orbited by a spacecraft. “First-of-its-kind innovations like this one serve as the precursor for future missions to small bodies,” said Sandy Freund, systems engineer manager and Lockheed Martin OSIRIS-REx MSA manager. “By proving out these technologies and techniques, we are going to be able to return the largest sample from space in half a century and pave the way for other missions.”
- A month of testing: The unfolding of the TAGSAM arm was the latest and most significant step in a series of tests and check-outs of the spacecraft’s sampling system, which began in October when OSIRIS-REx jettisoned the cover that protected the TAGSAM head during launch and the mission’s outbound cruise phase. Shortly before the cover ejection, and again the day after, OSIRIS-REx performed two spins called Sample Mass Measurements. By comparing the spacecraft’s inertial properties during these before-and-after spins, the team confirmed that the 1.21 kg cover was successfully ejected on Oct. 17.
- A week later, on Oct. 25, the Frangibolts holding the TAGSAM arm in place fired successfully, releasing the arm and allowing the team to move it into a parked position just outside its protective housing. After resting in this position for a few weeks, the arm was fully deployed into its sampling position, its joints were tested, and images were captured with SamCam. The spacecraft will execute two additional Sample Mass Measurements over the next two days. The mission team will use these spins as a baseline to compare with the results of similar spins that will be conducted after TAG in 2020 in order to confirm the mass of the sample collected.
- Although the sampling system was rigorously tested on Earth, this rehearsal marked the first time that the team has deployed TAGSAM in the micro-gravity environment of space.
- "The team is very pleased that TAGSAM has been released, deployed, and is operating as commanded through its full range of motion." said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "It has been restrained for over two years since launch, so it is gratifying to see it out of its shackles and performing well."
- OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to arrive at Bennu on Dec. 3. It will spend nearly one year surveying the asteroid with five scientific instruments so that the mission team can select a location that is safe and scientifically interesting to collect the sample.
- “Now that we have put TAGSAM through its paces in space and know it is ready to perform at Bennu, we can focus on the challenges of navigating around the asteroid and seeking out the best possible sample site,” said Lauretta.
• October 29, 2018: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft executed its third Asteroid Approach Maneuver (AAM-3) today. The trajectory correction maneuver (TCM) thrusters fired in a series of two braking maneuvers designed to slow the spacecraft’s speed relative to Bennu from approximately 11.7 mph (5.2 m/sec) to .24 mph (.11 m/sec). Due to constraints that science instruments not be pointed too closely to the Sun, this maneuver was designed as two separate burns of approximately 5.8 mph (2.6 m/sec) each, to accomplish a net change in velocity of around 11.5 mph (5.13 m/sec). The mission team will continue to examine telemetry and tracking data over the next week to verify the new trajectory. The maneuver targeted the spacecraft to fly through a corridor designed for the collection of high-resolution images that will be used to build a shape model of Bennu. 79)
• October 15, 2018: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft executed its second Asteroid Approach Maneuver (AAM-2) today. The spacecraft’s main engine thrusters fired in a braking maneuver designed to slow the spacecraft’s speed relative to Bennu from 315 mph (141 m/sec) to 11.8 mph (5.2 m/sec). Likewise, the spacecraft’s approach speed dropped from nearly 7,580 miles (12,200 km) to 280 miles (450 km) per day. The mission team will continue to examine telemetry and tracking data and will have more information over the next week. This burn marked the last planned use of the spacecraft’s main engines prior to OSIRIS-REx’s departure from Bennu in March 2021. 80)
• October 01, 2018: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft executed its first Asteroid Approach Maneuver (AAM-1) today putting it on course for its scheduled arrival at the asteroid Bennu in December. The spacecraft’s main engine thrusters fired in a braking maneuver designed to slow the spacecraft’s speed relative to Bennu from approximately 1,100 mph (491 m/s) to 313 mph (140 m/s). The mission team will continue to examine telemetry and tracking data as they become available and will have more information on the results of the maneuver over the next week. 81)
- During the next six weeks, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will continue executing the series of asteroid approach maneuvers designed to fly the spacecraft through a precise corridor during its final slow approach to Bennu. The last of these, AAM-4, scheduled for Nov. 12, will adjust the spacecraft’s trajectory to arrive at a position 12 miles (20 km) from Bennu on Dec. 3. After arrival, the spacecraft will initiate asteroid proximity operations by performing a series of fly-bys over Bennu’s poles and equator.
• September 26, 2018: Earlier this month, OSIRIS-REx searched the area around Bennu (circled in green) for any signs of dust plumes, which could present a hazard as the spacecraft approaches the asteroid. When OSIRIS-REx gets closer, it will also look for natural satellites (small moons) and conduct another dust plume search – but for now, the coast is clear.82)
- Successful cover opening for REXIS: On Sept. 14, the Frangibolt on the flight cover of REXIS – the student-built X-ray spectrometer that will help OSIRIS-REx map elements on Bennu’s surface – fired as planned and opened the instrument's cover. With the cover open, REXIS now has a clear view of space and is ready to collect data as the spacecraft approaches asteroid Bennu.
- Another trip around the Sun: It's hard to believe that an entire year has passed since OSIRIS-REx made a flyby of home on 22 September 2017, cruising low over Antarctica and using Earth's gravity to boost itself upward onto asteroid Bennu's orbital plane. Since then, the spacecraft has traveled more than 900 million kilometers (560 million miles) and will arrive at Bennu later this year.
- Just under five year from now (on Sept. 24, 2023), the OSIRIS-REx Sample Return Capsule – carrying at least 60 grams of surface material from asteroid Bennu – will land at the Utah Test and Training Range west of Salt Lake City. That sample, most of which will be carefully preserved and stored at NASA's Johnson Space Center, will allow generations of scientists to study material from the early Solar System.
• August 24, 2018: After an almost two-year journey, NASA’s asteroid sampling spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer), caught its first glimpse of asteroid Bennu last week and began the final approach toward its target. Kicking off the mission’s asteroid operations campaign on 17 August, the spacecraft’s PolyCam camera obtained the image from a distance of 2.2 million km. 83)
- “Now that OSIRIS-REx is close enough to observe Bennu, the mission team will spend the next few months learning as much as possible about Bennu’s size, shape, surface features, and surroundings before the spacecraft arrives at the asteroid,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “After spending so long planning for this moment, I can’t wait to see what Bennu reveals to us.”
- As OSIRIS-REx approaches the asteroid, the spacecraft will use its science instruments to gather information about Bennu and prepare for arrival. The spacecraft’s science payload comprises the OCAMS camera suite (PolyCam, MapCam, and SamCam), the OTES thermal spectrometer, the OVIRS visible and infrared spectrometer, the OLA laser altimeter, and the REXIS x-ray spectrometer.
- During the mission’s approach phase, OSIRIS-REx will:
a) regularly observe the area around the asteroid to search for dust plumes and natural satellites, and study Bennu’s light and spectral properties;
b) execute a series of four asteroid approach maneuvers, beginning on Oct. 1, slowing the spacecraft to match Bennu's orbit around the Sun;
c) jettison the protective cover of the spacecraft’s sampling arm in mid-October and subsequently extend and image the arm for the first time in flight; and
d) use OCAMS to reveal the asteroid’s overall shape in late-October and begin detecting Bennu’s surface features in mid-November.
- After arrival at Bennu, the spacecraft will spend the first month performing flybys of Bennu’s north pole, equator and south pole, at distances ranging between 19 and 7 km from the asteroid. These maneuvers will allow for the first direct measurement of Bennu’s mass as well as close-up observations of the surface. These trajectories will also provide the mission's navigation team with experience navigating near the asteroid.
- “Bennu’s low gravity provides a unique challenge for the mission," said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "At roughly 500 m in diameter, Bennu will be the smallest object that any spacecraft has ever orbited.”
- The spacecraft will extensively survey the asteroid before the mission team identifies two possible sample sites. Close examination of these sites will allow the team to pick one for sample collection, scheduled for early July 2020. After sample collection, the spacecraft will head back toward Earth before ejecting the Sample Return Capsule for landing in the Utah desert in Sept. 2023.
• August 20, 2018: After traveling for two years and millions of kilometers from Earth, the OSIRIS-REx probe is only a few months away from its destination: the intriguing asteroid Bennu. When it arrives in December, OSIRIS-REx will embark on a nearly two-year investigation of this clump of rock, mapping its terrain and finding a safe and fruitful site from which to collect a sample. 84)
- The spacecraft will briefly touch Bennu’s surface around July 2020 to collect at least 60 grams of dirt and rocks. It might collect as much as 2 kg, which would be the largest sample by far gathered from a space object since the Apollo Moon landings. The spacecraft will then pack the sample into a capsule and travel back to Earth, dropping the capsule into Utah's west desert in 2023, where scientists will be waiting to collect it.
- This years-long quest for knowledge thrusts Bennu into the center of one of the most ambitious space missions ever attempted. But the humble rock is but one of about 780,000 known asteroids in our solar system. So why did scientists pick Bennu for this momentous investigation? Here are 10 reasons.
1) It's close to Earth: Unlike most other asteroids that circle the Sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Bennu’s orbit is close in proximity to Earth's, even crossing it. The asteroid makes its closest approach to Earth every 6 years. It also circles the Sun nearly in the same plane as Earth, which made it somewhat easier to achieve the high-energy task of launching the spacecraft out of Earth's plane and into Bennu's. Still, the launch required considerable power, so OSIRIS-REx used Earth’s gravity to boost itself into Bennu’s orbital plane when it passed our planet in September 2017.
2) It's the right size: Asteroids spin on their axes just like Earth does. Small ones, with diameters of 200 m or less, often spin very fast, up to a few revolutions per minute. This rapid spinning makes it difficult for a spacecraft to match an asteroid's velocity in order to touch down and collect samples. Even worse, the quick spinning has flung loose rocks and soil, material known as "regolith" — the stuff OSIRIS-REx is looking to collect — off the surfaces of small asteroids. Bennu’s size, in contrast, makes it approachable and rich in regolith. It has a diameter of 492 m, which is a bit larger than the height of the Empire State Building in New York City, and rotating once every 4.3 hours.
3) It's really old: Bennu is a leftover fragment from the tumultuous formation of the solar system. Some of the mineral fragments inside Bennu could be older than the solar system. These microscopic grains of dust could be the same ones that spewed from dying stars and eventually coalesced to make the Sun and its planets nearly 4.6 billion years ago. But pieces of asteroids, called meteorites, have been falling to Earth's surface since the planet formed. So why don't scientists just study those old space rocks? Because astronomers can't tell (with very few exceptions) what kind of objects these meteorites came from, which is important context. Furthermore, these stones, that survive the violent, fiery decent to our planet's surface, get contaminated when they land in the dirt, sand, or snow. Some even get hammered by the elements, like rain and snow, for hundreds or thousands of years. Such events change the chemistry of meteorites, obscuring their ancient records.
4) It's well preserved: Bennu, on the other hand, is a time capsule from the early solar system, having been preserved in the vacuum of space. Although scientists think it broke off a larger asteroid in the asteroid belt in a catastrophic collision between about 1 and 2 billion years ago, and hurtled through space until it got locked into an orbit near Earth's, they don’t expect that these events significantly altered it.
5) It might contain clues to the origin of life: Analyzing a sample from Bennu will help planetary scientists better understand the role asteroids may have played in delivering life-forming compounds to Earth. We know from having studied Bennu through Earth- and space-based telescopes that it is a carbonaceous, or carbon-rich, asteroid. Carbon is the hinge upon which organic molecules hang. Bennu is likely rich in organic molecules, which are made of chains of carbon bonded with atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and other elements in a chemical recipe that makes all known living things. Besides carbon, Bennu also might have another component important to life: water, which is trapped in the minerals that make up the asteroid.
6) It contains valuable materials: Besides teaching us about our cosmic past, exploring Bennu close-up will help humans plan for the future. Asteroids are rich in natural resources, such as iron and aluminum, and precious metals, such as platinum. For this reason, some companies, and even countries, are building technologies that will one day allow us to extract those materials. More importantly, asteroids like Bennu are key to future, deep-space travel. If humans can learn how to extract the abundant hydrogen and oxygen from the water locked up in an asteroid’s minerals, they could make rocket fuel. Thus, asteroids could one day serve as fuel stations for robotic or human missions to Mars and beyond. Learning how to maneuver around an object like Bennu, and about its chemical and physical properties, will help future prospectors.
7) It will help us better understand other asteroids: Astronomers have studied Bennu from Earth since it was discovered in 1999. As a result, they think they know a lot about the asteroid's physical and chemical properties. Their knowledge is based not only on looking at the asteroid, but also studying meteorites found on Earth, and filling in gaps in observable knowledge with predictions derived from theoretical models. Thanks to the detailed information that will be gleaned from OSIRIS-REx, scientists now will be able to check whether their predictions about Bennu are correct. This work will help verify or refine telescopic observations and models that attempt to reveal the nature of other asteroids in our solar system.
8) It will help us better understand a quirky solar force ...: Astronomers have calculated that Bennu’s orbit has drifted about 280 m/year toward the Sun since it was discovered. This could be because of a phenomenon called the Yarkovsky effect, a process whereby sunlight warms one side of a small, dark asteroid and then radiates as heat off the asteroid as it rotates. The heat energy thrusts an asteroid either away from the Sun, if it has a prograde spin like Earth, which means it spins in the same direction as its orbit, or toward the Sun in the case of Bennu, which spins in the opposite direction of its orbit. OSIRIS-REx will measure the Yarkovsky effect from close-up to help scientists predict the movement of Bennu and other asteroids. Already, measurements of how this force impacted Bennu over time have revealed that it likely pushed it to our corner of the solar system from the asteroid belt.
9) ... and to keep asteroids at bay: One reason scientists are eager to predict the directions asteroids are drifting is to know when they're coming too-close-for-comfort to Earth. By taking the Yarkovsky effect into account, they’ve estimated that Bennu could pass closer to Earth than the Moon is in 2135, and possibly even closer between 2175 and 2195. Although Bennu is unlikely to hit Earth at that time, our descendants can use the data from OSIRIS-REx to determine how best to deflect any threatening asteroids that are found, perhaps even by using the Yarkovsky effect to their advantage.
10) It's a gift that will keep on giving: Samples of Bennu will return to Earth on September 24, 2023. OSIRIS-REx scientists will study a quarter of the regolith. The rest will be made available to scientists around the globe, and also saved for those not yet born, using techniques not yet invented, to answer questions not yet asked.
• July 3, 2018: New tracking data confirms that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft successfully completed its second Deep Space Maneuver (DSM-2) on June 28. The thruster burn put the spacecraft on course for a series of asteroid approach maneuvers to be executed this fall that will culminate with the spacecraft’s scheduled arrival at asteroid Bennu on Dec. 3. 85)
- The DSM-2 burn, which employed the spacecraft’s Trajectory Correction Maneuver (TCM) thruster set, resulted in a 37 miles per hour (16.7 m/s) change in the vehicle’s velocity and consumed 12.8 kg of fuel.
- Tracking data from the Deep Space Network provided preliminary confirmation of the burn’s execution, and the subsequent downlink of telemetry from the spacecraft shows that all subsystems performed as expected.
- DSM-2 was OSIRIS-REx’s last deep space maneuver of its outbound cruise to Bennu. The next engine burn, Asteroid Approach Maneuver 1 (AAM-1), is scheduled for early October. AAM-1 is a major braking maneuver designed to slow the spacecraft’s speed from approximately 506.2 to 144.4 m/s relative to Bennu and is the first of four asteroid approach maneuvers scheduled for this fall.
• May 2018: Asteroid Operations for the OSIRIS-REx mission begin in August 2018 – when the spacecraft will capture its first image of Bennu from a distance of two million km – and continue until March 2021 – when the spacecraft begins its return trip to Earth. During this period, OSIRIS-REx will survey and map Bennu, navigate in close proximity to the asteroid, and ultimately touch the surface for five seconds to gather a sample of the asteroid. 86)
- Asteroid Operations are divided into nine phases, which are each specifically designed to allow the mission team to build its knowledge of the asteroid, learn how to safely navigate the spacecraft in microgravity, and identify the best sample site (Figure 74).
- Approach: Approach Phase begins on August 17, 2018, when the spacecraft is still two million km away from Bennu, and it continues until the spacecraft arrives at the asteroid. The primary goals of Approach are to visually locate Bennu for the first time, survey the surrounding area for potential hazards, and collect enough imagery of Bennu for scientists to generate a detailed shape model of the asteroid, assign a coordinate system, and understand its spin state.
- Preliminary Survey: Preliminary Survey Phase begins with the spacecraft’s arrival at Bennu on December 3, 2018, and marks the first time that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will operate around the asteroid. The spacecraft will make a total of five passes over the north pole, equator, and south pole at a range of 7 km. The primary science goals of Preliminary Survey are to estimate Bennu’s mass, refine the asteroid’s spin state model, and generate a global shape model at a resolution of 75 cm.
- Orbital A: In Orbital A Phase, the spacecraft will be placed into a gravitationally-bound orbit around Bennu for the first time. There are no science requirements for Orbital A, as this phase is designed to provide the mission team with experience navigating in close proximity to a small body. The spacecraft will circle Bennu at a distance between 1.5 and 2.0 km, and each orbit will last about 50 hours.
During this phase, the navigation team will transition from star-based navigation to landmark-based navigation. Using landmarks – such as boulders and craters on Bennu’s surface – to determine the position of OSIRIS-REx allows the navigation team to maneuver the spacecraft very precisely, which will be critical during upcoming mission phases.
- Detailed Survey: Baseball Diamond: The in-depth study of Bennu begins in earnest during Detailed Survey: Baseball Diamond Phase. OSIRIS-REx will make multiple passes around Bennu to produce the wide range of viewing angles necessary to fully observe the asteroid. The spacecraft will also use its OTES spectrometer to map the chemical composition of Bennu’s entire surface. Images obtained during this phase will be of high enough resolution to produce digital terrain maps and global image mosaics for proposed sample sites. Bennu’s terrain will be surveyed in bulk and sections will be classified as either “safe” or “unsafe,” with the results visualized on a hazard map.
The phase’s name comes from the early stage of mission design when the stations the spacecraft would traverse were arranged in the shape of a baseball diamond. Although the mission design has since evolved, the original name for the phase remains.
- Detailed Survey: Equatorial Stations: During Detailed Survey: Equatorial Stations Phase, the spacecraft will make scientific observations needed to help the team hone in on the best location on Bennu to collect a sample of regolith (loose surface material). To obtain this data, the spacecraft will execute a series of slews between Bennu’s north and south poles while taking observations from seven different stations above the equator. These data will be studied to understand the geology of Bennu. The spacecraft will also conduct searches for dust and gas plumes.
The wide range of data products developed during this phase will be analyzed and combined to produce the Integrated Global Science Value Map, the Global Safety Map and the Global Sampleability Map. At the end of Detailed Survey: Equatorial Stations, the team will have the information needed to select up to 12 candidate sample sites. In addition, the team will map the global properties of the asteroid, accomplishing a major science objective of the mission.
- Orbital B: At the end of Detailed Survey, the spacecraft will enter a close orbit (with a radius of 1 km) around Bennu and begin Orbital B Phase. This phase marks the closest that a spacecraft has ever orbited around a small body. The primary science activities for this phase are global mapping of Bennu, the development of shape modeling based on OLA data, and the execution of a Radio Science experiment. These data are used to evaluate potential sample sites for three key elements: safety, sampleability and science value. Orbital B concludes with the team narrowing in on a primary and a back-up sample site.
- Recon: During Recon Phase, the spacecraft will make a series of low-altitude reconnaissance observations of the two final sample site candidates. These observations, obtained from 225 m above the surface, will show objects on the ground that are as small as 2 cm. Context images of the sites will also be taken during higher passes at an elevation of 525 m. Both sites will be fully studied so that the team can immediately begin planning sample collection at the back-up site if it becomes necessary.
- Rehearsal: Because sample collection is a critical event, the mission has planned for at least two rehearsals prior to final execution. In the first rehearsal OSIRIS-REx will practice leaving its orbit, maneuvering to a pre-defined Checkpoint located 125 m above the sample site, and then returning to orbit. The second rehearsal will take the spacecraft from orbit to a Matchpoint, where it will hover over the sampling location before a return to orbit. During each rehearsal, the spacecraft will collect and analyze tracking data, LIDAR ranges, and OCAMS and TAGCAMS imagery so that the team can verify the flight system’s performance before the actual sample collection maneuver.
- TAG (Touch-And-Go): When it is time, OSIRIS-REx will use the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go-Sample-Acquisition-Mechanism) instrument to collect a sample of regolith from Bennu. TAGSAM is an articulated arm on the spacecraft with a round sampler head at the end. During the Touch-and-Go maneuver (TAG), the sampler head will be extended toward Bennu, and the momentum of the spacecraft’s slow, downward trajectory will push it against the asteroid’s surface for about five seconds—just long enough to obtain a sample. At contact, nitrogen gas will blow onto the surface to roil up dust and small pebbles, which will then be captured in the TAGSAM head.
After the spacecraft fires its thruster to back-away from Bennu, the mission team will measure the amount of sample collected by spinning the spacecraft with the TAGSAM arm extended. They will then compare the change in the spacecraft’s inertia with a previous, empty-TAGSAM spin to ensure that enough sample was collected. The spacecraft has three nitrogen gas canisters on board, allowing for three sampling attempts. Once it is determined that sample collection is successful, the TAGSAM head will be placed in the Sample Return Capsule for return to the Earth. After successful stowage, the spacecraft will be put in a slow drift away from Bennu to a safe distance, where it will stay until its departure in March 2021 for the Return Cruise Phase back to Earth.
• December 31, 2017: The purpose of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is to map and return samples from asteroid Bennu, a carbon-rich hunk of rock that might contain organic materials or molecular precursors to life. It is also an asteroid that could someday make a close pass or even a collision with Earth, though not for several centuries. 87)
- At the philosophical level, OSIRIS-REx is a mission to figure out where we came from, as asteroids are remnants from the formation of our solar system. But while the spacecraft might tell us some things about where we have been and where we are headed, it also can remind us of where we are right now.
- On October 2, 2017, the MapCam instrument on OSIRIS-REx captured the data for a composite image of the Earth and Moon (Figure 75). The spacecraft was approximately 5 million km from Earth at the time, about 13 times the distance between the Earth and Moon. (Click here to see the geometry of the shot.) Three images (different color wavelengths) were combined and color-corrected to make the composite, and the Moon was “stretched” (brightened) to make it more easily visible.
• December 13, 2017: OSIRIS-REx is continuing outbound cruise operations, en route to arrival in August of 2018 at asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft is currently 47.6 million km from Earth and is executing a program designed to study and reduce the presence of water on the spacecraft. 88)
During routine in-flight testing of the spacecraft's thermal properties earlier this year, the mission's navigation team noticed an unexpected minor acceleration of the spacecraft when the SRC (Sample Return Capsule) was exposed to sunlight. The mission team determined that this small thrust was caused by the outgassing of water that had been adsorbed by the SRC's heat shield and backshell before launch.
- Retention of water in blanketing and other materials - and the subsequent outgassing of this water - occurs with all spacecraft. For OSIRIS-REx, it was determined that when the SRC was exposed to the Sun at a distance of less than 1 Astronomical Unit (1 AU = approximately 150 million km), this trapped water escaped and imparted a small thrust.
- While this small thrust would not be a problem for other missions, the gravity at the target asteroid Bennu is low enough that even this small amount of thrust could make orbital operations more difficult for OSIRIS-REx.
- To better understand the outgassing effects on the spacecraft's trajectory - and to bake out much of the remaining water before the spacecraft arrives at Bennu - the OSIRIS-REx mission team designed an outgassing program for execution starting earlier this fall.
- The choice of timing took into account both the spacecraft's proximity to the Sun (less than 1 AU) and the fact that there were no science activities planned during this period. The outgassing program is being run concurrently with outbound cruise operations and does not affect the timing of the spacecraft's arrival at Bennu.
- Starting in mid-October, the spacecraft has been placed into various attitudes to expose different parts of the SRC to direct sunlight and initiate outgassing. Priority is given to the portions of the SRC that will face the Sun during asteroid proximity operations. The mission team has been able to detect and measure the rate of outgassing at each attitude and has determined that water is being removed as expected.
- The goal is to reduce the outgassing to the point where the spacecraft can fly the planned baseline trajectories around Bennu without modifications, and preliminary indications show that the program is progressing toward this goal. The program is scheduled to run through early January 2018.
• September 28, 2017: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission captured a lovely ‘Blue Marble’ image of our Home Planet during the Sept. 22 successful gravity assist swing-by sending the probe hurtling towards asteroid Bennu for a rendezvous next August on a round trip journey to snatch pristine soil samples. 89)
Legend to Figure 76: The image is centered on the Pacific Ocean and shows several familiar landmasses, including Australia in the lower left, and Baja California and the southwestern United States in the upper right.
- The spacecraft conducted a post flyby science campaign by collecting images and science observations of Earth and the Moon that began four hours after closest approach in order to test and calibrate its onboard suite of five science instruments and help prepare them for OSIRIS-REx’s arrival at Bennu in late 2018.
• September 22, 2017: NASA’s asteroid sample return spacecraft successfully used Earth’s gravity on Friday to slingshot itself on a path toward the asteroid Bennu, for a rendezvous next August. 90)
- At 12:52 p.m. EDT on September 22, the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer) spacecraft came within 17,237 km of Antarctica, just south of Cape Horn, Chile, before following a route north over the Pacific Ocean.
- OSIRIS-REx launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on September 8, 2016, on an Atlas V 411 rocket. Although the rocket provided the spacecraft with the all the momentum required to propel it forward to Bennu, OSIRIS-REx needed an extra boost from the Earth’s gravity to change its orbital plane. Bennu’s orbit around the Sun is tilted six degrees from Earth’s orbit, and this maneuver changed the spacecraft’s direction to put it on the path toward Bennu.
- As a result of the flyby, the velocity change to the spacecraft was 3.778 km/s.
- “The encounter with Earth is fundamental to our rendezvous with Bennu,” said Rich Burns, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA/GSFC in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The total velocity change from Earth’s gravity far exceeds the total fuel load of the OSIRIS-REx propulsion system, so we are really leveraging our Earth flyby to make a massive change to the OSIRIS-REx trajectory, specifically changing the tilt of the orbit to match Bennu.”
- The mission team also is using OSIRIS-REx’s Earth flyby as an opportunity to test and calibrate the spacecraft’s instrument suite. Approximately four hours after the point of closest approach, and on three subsequent days over the next two weeks, the spacecraft’s instruments will be turned on to scan Earth and the Moon. These data will be used to calibrate the spacecraft’s science instruments in preparation for OSIRIS-REx’s arrival at Bennu in late 2018.
- “The opportunity to collect science data over the next two weeks provides the OSIRIS-REx mission team with an excellent opportunity to practice for operations at Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “During the Earth flyby, the science and operations teams are co-located, performing daily activities together as they will during the asteroid encounter.”
• August 25, 2017: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft fired its thrusters to position itself on the correct course for its upcoming Earth flyby. The spacecraft, which is on a two-year outbound journey to asteroid Bennu, successfully performed a precision course adjustment on Aug. 23 to prepare for the gravity slingshot on Sept. 22. 91)
- This trajectory correction maneuver was the first to use the spacecraft’s ACS (Attitude Control System) thrusters in a turn-burn-turn sequence. In this type of sequence, OSIRIS-REx’s momentum wheels turn the spacecraft to point the ACS thrusters toward the desired direction for the burn, and the thrusters fire. After the burn, the momentum wheels turn the spacecraft back to its previous orientation. The total thrust is monitored by an on-board accelerometer that will stop the maneuver once the desired thrust is achieved.
- High-precision changes in velocity, or speed and direction, will be critical when the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft operates near Bennu. Because Bennu is so small, it has only a weak gravity field. Therefore, it will only require tiny changes in velocity to do many of the maneuvers that are planned to explore and map the asteroid.
- The Aug. 23 maneuver began at 1 p.m. EDT and lasted for approximately one minute and 17 seconds. Preliminary tracking data indicate that the maneuver was successful, changing the velocity of the spacecraft by 47.9 cm/s and using approximately 0.46 kg of fuel.
- OSIRIS-REx will fly by Earth on Sept. 22 to use our planet’s gravity to propel the spacecraft onto Bennu’s orbital plane. As of Aug. 25, the spacecraft is about 16.6 million km from Earth.
• March 24, 2017: During an almost two-week search, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission team activated the spacecraft’s MapCam imager and scanned part of the surrounding space for elusive Earth-Trojan asteroids — objects that scientists believe may exist in one of the stable regions that co-orbits the sun with Earth. Although no Earth-Trojans were discovered, the spacecraft’s camera operated flawlessly and demonstrated that it could image objects two magnitudes dimmer than originally expected. 92)
- The spacecraft, currently on its outbound journey to asteroid Bennu, flew through the center of Earth’s fourth Lagrangian area — a stable region 60º in front of Earth in its orbit where scientists believe asteroids may be trapped, such as asteroid 2010 TK7, discovered by NASA’s WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) satellite in 2010. Though no new asteroids were discovered in the region that was scanned, the spacecraft’s cameras MapCam and PolyCam successfully acquired and imaged Jupiter and several of its moons, as well as Main Belt asteroids.
- “The Earth-Trojan Asteroid Search was a significant success for the OSIRIS-REx mission,” said OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson. “In this first practical exercise of the mission’s science operations, the mission team learned so much about this spacecraft’s capabilities and flight operations that we are now ahead of the game for when we get to Bennu.”
- The Earth Trojan survey was designed primarily as an exercise for the mission team to rehearse the hazard search the spacecraft will perform as it approaches its target asteroid Bennu. This search will allow the mission team to avoid any natural satellites that may exist around the asteroid as the spacecraft prepares to collect a sample to return to Earth in 2023 for scientific study.
- The spacecraft’s MapCam imager, in particular, performed much better than expected during the exercise. Based on the camera’s design specifications, the team anticipated detecting four Main Belt asteroids. In practice, however, the camera was able to detect moving asteroids two magnitudes fainter than expected and imaged a total of 17 Main Belt asteroids. This indicates that the mission will be able to detect possible hazards around Bennu earlier and from a much greater distance than originally planned, further reducing mission risk.
• February 9, 2017: OSIRIS-REx begins its search for an enigmatic class of near-Earth objects known as Earth-Trojan asteroids. OSIRIS-REx, currently on a two-year outbound journey to the asteroid Bennu, will spend almost two weeks searching for evidence of these small bodies. 93)
- Trojan asteroids are trapped in stable gravity wells, called Lagrange points, which precede or follow a planet. OSIRIS-REx is currently traveling through Earth's fourth Lagrange point (L4), which is located 60 degrees ahead in Earth's orbit around the sun, about 150 million km from our planet. The mission team will use this opportunity to take multiple images of the area with the spacecraft’s MapCam camera in the hope of identifying Earth-Trojan asteroids in the region.
- Although scientists have discovered thousands of Trojan asteroids accompanying other planets, only one Earth-Trojan has been identified to date, asteroid 2010 TK7. Scientists predict that there should be more Trojans sharing Earth’s orbit, but they are difficult to detect from Earth as they appear near the sun on the Earth’s horizon.
- “Because the Earth’s fourth Lagrange point is relatively stable, it is possible that remnants of the material that built Earth are trapped within it,” said Dante Lauretta (the PI of OSIRIS-REx of the University of Arizona). “So this search gives us a unique opportunity to explore the primordial building blocks of Earth.”
- The search commences Feb. 9 and continues through Feb. 20. On each observation day, the spacecraft’s MapCam camera will take 135 survey images that will be processed and examined by the mission’s imaging scientists at the University of Arizona, Tucson. The study plan also includes opportunities for MapCam to image Jupiter, several galaxies, and the main belt asteroids 55 Pandora, 47 Aglaja and 12 Victoria.
- Whether or not the team discovers any new asteroids, the search is a beneficial exercise. The operations involved in searching for Earth-Trojan asteroids closely resemble those required to search for natural satellites and other potential hazards around Bennu when the spacecraft approaches its target in 2018. Being able to practice these mission-critical operations in advance will help the OSIRIS-REx team reduce mission risk once the spacecraft arrives at Bennu.
• December 28, 2016: NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft executed its first Deep Space Maneuver today, putting it on course for an Earth flyby in September 2017. The team will continue to examine telemetry and tracking data as it becomes available at the current low data rate and will have more information in January. 94)
• October 7, 2016: The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft fired its TCM (Trajectory Correction Maneuver) thrusters for the first time in order to slightly adjust its trajectory on the outbound journey from Earth to the asteroid Bennu. The TCM-1 lasted for about 12 seconds, changing the spacecraft velocity for about 0.5m/s. The spacecraft is currently 14.5 million km from Earth. 95)
- TCM-1 was originally included in the spacecraft’s flight plan to fine-tune its trajectory if needed after the mission’s Sept. 8 launch. The ULA Atlas V’s launch performance was so accurate, however, that the spacecraft’s orbit had no practical need for correction. Instead, the OSIRIS-REx mission team used the Oct. 7 maneuver to test the TCM thrusters and as practice to prepare for a much larger propulsive maneuver scheduled in December.
• On September 22, 2016, two weeks after launch, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft switched on the TAGCAMS (Touch and Go Camera System) to demonstrate proper operation in space. This image of the spacecraft was captured by the StowCam portion of the system when it was 6.17 million km away from Earth and traveling at a speed of 30 km/s around the Sun.
• As of Sept. 15, 2016, OSIRIS-REx was approximately 3.2 million km from Earth. All of the spacecraft’s subsystems are operating as expected. 96)
• OSIRIS-REx separated from its United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 59 minutes after liftoff. The solar arrays deployed and are now powering the spacecraft (Ref. 26).
Sensor Complement (OCAMS, OLA, OVIRS, OTES, REXIS, TAGSAM)
OSIRIS-REx delivers its science using five instruments and radio science along with the TAGSAM (Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism). All of the instruments and data analysis techniques have direct heritage from flown planetary missions. 97)
OCAMS (OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite)
OCAMS is composed of three cameras. PolyCam provides long-range Bennu acquisition and high-resolution imaging of Bennu’s surface. MapCam supports optical navigation during proximity-operations, global mapping, and sample-site reconnaissance. SamCam performs sample-site characterization and sample-acquisition documentation. The OCAMS camera suite is being developed at LPL (Lunar and Planetary Lab) of UA (University of Arizona). 98) 99)
These cameras will “see” asteroid Bennu as the spacecraft first approaches it. OCAMS will then provide global image mapping and sample site imaging and characterization. Finally OCAMS will record the entire sampling event during the TAG (Touch-And-Go) maneuver. Specifically:
• PolyCam, a 20 cm telescope, is the first to “see” the asteroid from 2 million km away. Once the spacecraft is closer, it will image Bennu at high resolution. FOV = 0.8º. The asteroid is first acquired through the PolyCam, an 8 arcsec Richey-Chretien telescope capable of detecting up to 12th mag objects limited by spacecraft jitter. As features on the asteroid become resolvable, this telescope is used for preliminary mapping at a surface resolution of <25 cm.
• MapCam searches for satellites and outgassing plumes. It maps the asteroid in 4 different colors, informs our model of asteroid shape, and provides high resolution imaging of the sample-site. FOV = 4º.
• SamCam will continuously document the sample acquisition event and TAG maneuver. SanCam gives the context for the recovered sample with a FOV of 21º.
All cameras use identical detector arrays but are characterized by focal lengths separated by a factor of 5.
Post-launch calibration of the cameras is performed during the 2-year cruise that includes an Earth flyby. Five sources are used for calibration: stellar clusters (geometric distortion); solar-type stars (radiometric calibration); blocking filter (dark current evolution in the radiation environment); illumination lamps (pixel-to-pixel fixed pattern noise); and the Earth-Moon system (operational preparation).
Within 500,000 km of asteroid Bennu, PolyCam aides the navigation team by locating the asteroid against background stars. The approach affords an opportunity to verify the phase curve, the rotation rate, and other properties that have been measured using ground-based telescopes. A search for potentially hazardous secondaries will assure a safe approach. In addition, Poly-Cam collects images for a preliminary shape model.
Survey: After approaching the asteroid and accomplishing flybys of the polar regions, a series of observing positions allows the mapping of Bennu from various phase angles and latitudes throughout its 4.5 hour rotation. Both high resolution and color-ratio maps are generated over at least 80% of the surface. The data sets are combined to make a solid model of the asteroid shape forming the basis for detailed mapping. These maps are used to delineate craters, large boulders, and linear features. The maps will also be examined to determine 12 potential sampling sites of diameter 25 m.
Orbital Phase: The navigation team guides the spacecraft to a polar orbit above the terminator where the gravitational attraction is balanced by radiation pressure from the Sun. The 1 km orbit puts the cameras several hundred meters above the surface of the 275 m radius object. From this vantage point the 12 sites are more closely examined (>5 cm objects resolved by PolyCam) and the top 4 sites are selected for further investigation.
Reconnaissance: Fly-overs from the safe home orbit allow sub-cm imaging for the 4 finalists. The high resolution is accomplished by refocusing the PolyCam, effectively converting a telescope to a microscope. These reconnaissance fly-overs permit final assurance that the surface materials are neither hazardous to sample collection (>21 cm) nor devoid of small regolith particles that can be collected by the sampling arm (<2 cm).
Sampling: Using all information, a final site is selected and a series of rehearsals takes place to practice each step of the sampling process. At each rehearsal the MapCam monitors the surface motions with images at a range of 30 m from the surface,a distance that allows the rotational velocity to be matched.
From this Matchpoint the final sampling event is initiated. Slowly descending toward the surface with its arm extended, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft prepares to collect a sample of asteroid Bennu. The SamCam records the event at about a frame/sec, its wide field encompassing the sampling head near the center of the frame.
These images document the context of the undisturbed surface, then the post-collection morphology, that help the team decide if a sufficiently large sample has been taken. It is important to be certain that the sample is in the collection chamber before returning to Earth. The SamCam images the sample head when the spacecraft has reached a safe distance away from the asteroid to provide visual confirmation of the sample within the sample head. With these final images the mission for the cameras is completed. An overview of OCAMS resolution vs range for the mission phases is shown in Figure 83.
OLA (OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter)
OLA is a scanning LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) instrument to provide high-resolution topographical information. OLA’s high-energy laser transmitter is used for ranging from 1–7.5 km that supports Radio Science and provides scaling information for images and spectral spots. OLA’s low-energy transmitter is used for rapid ranging and LIDAR imaging at 500 m to 1 km, providing a global topographic map of Bennu as well as local maps of candidate sample sites. The OLA instrument is a contribution of CSA (Canadian Space Agency) and is manufactured, assembled and tested by MDA (MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates) and Optech Inc. 100) 101) 102) 103) 104)
OLA will deliver high density 3D point cloud data, enabling reconstruction of an asteroid shape model at the highest density yet recorded on any small body, and providing much needed slope information (Figure 84) at the sample site leading up to acquisition. These data will be important for determining the geological context of the samples obtained by the OSIRIS-REx mission, as well as help minimizing the risk of encountering hazards during sampling. In addition, OLA will be important for the accurate determination of the gravity field of Bennu by providing an accurate measure of the distance between the spacecraft and asteroid in support of radio science. Finally, OLA will provide ranging in support of other instruments and navigation.
The OLA system is based on a heritage design of the scanning lidar system built by MDA for the US AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory) XSS-11 mission. The base system will be augmented with a second higher energy laser transmitter for increased range capability that is based on the heritage of the MDA built 2008 Phoenix Mars Lidar.
The OLA system is a scanning, time-of-fight lidar, based on a flight proven space lidar augmented with a 2nd high energy laser transmitter. This dual laser design, coupled with a 2-axis scanning mirror, complete with an integrated real-time data acquisition and processing platform provides a powerful, yet flexible, scientific instrument. OLA's unique capabilities allow it to support both OSIRIS-REx mission operational tasks (navigation ranging, self-triangulation of the spacecraft to surface features) as well as supporting science objectives (3D shape, topography, block and crater distributions, asteroid volume, etc).
OLA Operations Concept
The OSIRIS-REx mission has a number of phases. Each phase has a typical range and spacecraft motion. OLA’s scanning mirror provides operational flexibility to efficiently measure the asteroid’s surface. The OSIRIS-REx mission phases, along with the scanner and spacecraft motions are depicted in Figure 85.
A survey of Bennu includes four major phases:
• Preliminary Survey (~7 km) — OLA operates in a pushbroom mode by scanning perpendicular to the S/C motion.
• Orbital A (~1.5km) — No OLA activity.
• Detailed Survey (~3.5km-5km) — OLA scans perpendicular to the S/C’s North-South slew.
• Orbital B (~750m from the surface) — OLA scans in a raster mode to create 3D “images” of the surface.
• Reconnaissance (~225m-500m) — OLA uses its scanner to spread its measurement points over the sampling ellipse while the spacecraft translates and slews.
OLA Key Requirements
The OLA instrument key requirements include:
• Operational range: 7.5 km to <500 m @ 3% Lambertian albedo
• FOR (Field of Regard): ± 7º
• Range accuracy: < 30 cm
• Range resolution: < 1 cm
• Relative pointing: ~ µ50 rad.
The OLA key requirements per OSIRIS-REx mission phase are captured in Table 2. OLA exceeds its key requirements.
Orbital phase B
Max range (m)
Range accuracy (m)
Range precision (m)
Laser pulse rate (Hz)
Beam divergence (rad)
Scanner FOR (º)
The detailed Bennu surface scans, performed during Orbital Phase B and the Reconnaissance phases, will be processed on the ground to produce a detailed asteroid model complete with high resolution surface features. This model, when combined with a measurement of the asteroid mass and rotation rate, allows the surface geometry to be converted to topography and slopes (Figure 86).
OLA sensor system implementation: The OLA design comprises two complementary lasers, coupled with a 2-axis FSM (Fine Scanning Mirror), a common receiver and an integrated data acquisition and processing platform (Figures 87 & 89).
OLA’s 2-axis scanning mirror directs transmitted laser pulses towards the target and the laser returns back to the field of view of the receiver. Although the design supports a variety of scan patterns, the OLA mission only requires use of raster and linear scans. Scan data (per laser pulse) includes time-tagged target range, intensity, azimuth, and elevation as well as a measure of the outgoing laser intensity. The OSIRIS-REx ground segment uses the OLA telemetry to generate the required mission data products. If required, OLA generated scan data (e.g. range and range rate data) may be used to complement other OSIRIS-REx sensor data and support other mission needs.
A unique aspect of the OLA instrument is its ability to point its laser very quickly allowing many measurements to be made without moving the spacecraft. OLA’s measurement speed of up to 10,000 measurements/s, combined with a very agile scanning device, it allows “range pictures”to be taken.
OLA High Energy Stage: OLA's low pulse rate, high-energy laser transmitter ranges and maps from ~7.5 km down to ~1km. OLA’s high energy laser provides high accuracy range data of Bennu for the purposes of navigation. It also provides long-range scans of the asteroid surface required to establish the shape (and model the gravity) of Bennu.
OLA Low Energy Stage: OLA’s high pulse rate, low-energy transmitter ranges and maps from ~1 km down to ~500 m (and possibly 200 m if required). The low energy laser stage is used at shorter ranges to generate high resolution maps. These maps can be used to detect candidate sample sites and select the preferred TAG (Touch-And Go) site. The detailed TAG site surface map can also be used to provide context for samples collected at the TAG sample site.
OLA feature-benefit analysis: OLA’s capabilities go much beyond altimetry. In addition to its large ranging capability (from 7.5 km to 500 m), OLA design provides the following capabilities in support of both science and navigation mission goals:
• Flexible user-selectable scanning over a +/-7o FOR (sub-window scan, scan window size, scan speed, scan patterns, altimetry mode) supporting various mission needs (altimetry, sparse/dense mapping, multiple-window scans).
• Robust scan data (Range, Azimuth, Elevation, Intensity, Laser Return Intensity) supporting target tracking, generation of local/global topographic maps, Range maps, Intensity maps and Surface Hazard maps. Surface features, identifiable in the dense scans, can be used to navigate the spacecraft to the TAG location. High resolution intensity maps can be combined with other camera sensor data to allow a more robust surface feature identification.
• Dual laser design, comprising high and low energy lasers with range overlap, provide ranging fault tolerance (OLA degraded ranging function following laser failure).
• The 2-axis scanning mirror provides flexible user defined scanning which can be tailored to support the known (and new) mission phase needs. The mirror may still provide degraded functionality (e.g.; altimetry) following loss-of-motion failures.
• Last, but not least, the OLA ranging capability may be used to augment other scientific and GN&C sensors by providing range data throughout the mission phases, including the final TAG mission phase. OLA provides the spacecraft with a 10 Hz real-time range data via the OLA telemetry data stream.
OLA science benefits: OLA measures the distance from the instrument to the surface of Bennu with high resolution and rate in any lighting condition. This data will be used to generate high-resolution shape models of Bennu which can be combined with a measurement of mass, pole orientation and spin rate to generate topography and geophysical models that will be used to understand the origin, evolution and present state of the asteroid.
These models will also be used for spacecraft navigation and approach planning. The high resolution topography of candidate sampling sites will be used to choose a sampling site that has a high probability of successfully sampling the asteroid while maintaining the safety of the spacecraft.
OVIRS (OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer)
OVIRS is a linear-variable point spectrometer (4 mrad FOV) with a spectral range of 0.4 – 4.3 µm, providing full-disk Bennu spectral data, global spectral maps (20 m resolution), and local spectral information of the sample site (0.08 – 2 m resolution). OVIRS spectra will be used to identify volatile- and organic- rich regions of Bennu’s surface and guide sample-site selection. 106)
The OVIRS instrument uses an OAP (Off-Axis Parabolic) mirror to image the surface of the asteroid onto a field stop. The field stop selects a 4 mrad angular region of the image. The light from this 4 mrad area passes to a second OAP that recollimates it and illuminates the FPA (Focal Plane Assembly). Because the beam speed is low (~ f/50) this assembly, consisting of the array with the filter mounted in close proximity to it, is effectively at a pupil. Each detector element of the array “sees” the same spatial region of the asteroid but, as described below, different columns of the array “see” it at different wavelengths. The complete spectrum of the 4 mrad spot is obtained in a single measurement. This is somewhat different than the case for some wedged filter spectral imagers, such as LEISA, where the spectrum of a given point is built up over several frames, e.g.
In order to obtain the high SNR required for OVIRS on a very dark asteroid surface (albedo ~3%), at least 30 pixels will be averaged in each wavelength column. This conservative number, used in sensitivity modeling, is based on worst-case estimates of both spectral "smile" and scattering at segment boundaries. The actual number of pixels summed will be determined in instrument testing. The data will first be filtered using a pre-measured bad pixel map. To prevent cosmic ray events from contaminating the spectra while still reducing the data volume, pixels will be averaged in subsets before transmission to the ground. Contaminated subsets will be removed in ground processing before summing the remaining subsets at each wavelength to obtain the final spectrum.
The detector array is thermally coupled to a two-stage passive radiator to obtain focal plane temperatures of ~105 K. This reduces the dark current sufficiently that dark current noise is never the dominant noise source with more than a factor of two margin. The camera enclosure shields its contents from radiation and contaminants and mounts to the OSIRIS science deck. A cold baffle in the optical path limits the thermal background signal from the instrument enclosure. In addition, small radiators will reduce the temperature of the optics enclosure itself to less than 160 K, further reducing thermal background noise. The thermal design is such that, except for very low asteroid surface temperatures and very low solar reflectance, the measurement noise is dominated by source photon noise. For very low asteroid signal, the primary noise term is the low read noise. This is the optimum design from a noise standpoint.
OVIRS will be calibrated prior to launch and the calibration will be checked throughout the mission. Spectral calibration will be accomplished using gratings to provide effective monochromatic scanned radiometric sources with R>2,000. Radiometric and relative response calibrations will be performed using NIST traceable calibrated blackbodies and flood sources. The quality of the point spread function will be assessed using collimated point and extended sources. The boresight pointing shall be measured with respect to an optical alignment cube on OVIRS.
In-flight radiometric calibration will rely on three methods: a calibrated onboard array of miniature black body sources (T ~700 K) placed at the OVIRS fieldstop and tungsten filament sources located after the secondary mirror, in-flight observations of the Earth and the Moon and absolute solar reflectance calibrations. The terrestrial and lunar calibrations will occur on the OSIRIS-REx flyby of Earth. The onboard solar reflectance calibrations will be carried out occasionally by using the spacecraft control system to point the solar calibration port at the sun. The combination of these methods will provide redundant radiometric calibration. It is expected that OVIRS will provide spectral data with at least 5% radiometric accuracy and no worse than 2% pixel-to-pixel precision. Because wedged filters are very stable, the spectral calibration is not expected to change in flight, however, the Earth and Lunar observations will also provide spectral calibrations. Spectral calibration is expected to be accurate to 0.25 of the halfwidth or better. The dark current and background flux will be measured using dark sky observations.
OTES (OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer)
OTES is a FTI (Fourier Transform Interferometer), point spectrometer (8 mrad FOV) that collects hyperspectral thermal infrared data over the spectral range from 4 – 50 µm with a spectral resolution of 10 cm-1. OTES provides full-disk Bennu spectral data, global spectral maps, and local sample site spectral information. 107)
OTES is being developed and built at the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU (Arizona State University). During several phases of the mission, OTES measures the energy emitted by Bennu over wavelengths of approximately 5 – 50 µm, the thermal infrared. At these wavelengths, virtually all minerals have unique spectral signatures that are like fingerprints, which will help the science team to understand what minerals are present on the surface of Bennu and search for minerals of particular interest, such as those that contain water. Additionally, the emitted heat energy (temperature) at these wavelengths can tell the science team about physical properties of the surface, such as the mean particle size.
OTES is an uncooled, Fourier transform infrared point spectrometer. The design of OTES is heritage from the Mars Global Surveyor TES (Thermal Emission Spectrometer) and the Mars Exploration Rovers Mini-TES instruments. The heart of the instrument is a Michelson interferometer that collects one interferogram every two seconds. OTES’s spectral resolution is 10 cm-1 and its field of view is 8 mrad, achieved with a 15.2 cm f/3.91 Ritchey-Chretien telescope. A key component of OTES is its beamsplitter, which is the part of the interferometer that splits the incoming light beam into two pathways before they are recombined and measured at the detector. Unlike the TES and Mini-TES beamsplitters, which were made of CsI (Cesium Iodide) and KBr (Potassium Bromide), the OTES beamsplitter is made of CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposited) diamond. A diamond beamsplitter is physically stronger than the CsI and KBr and it is not hygroscopic, which means that it does not absorb water from the atmosphere (which will cause CsI and KBr beamsplitters to become cloudy, making them less effective).
OTES looks at just one spot on the asteroid’s surface at a time, and it does not need to focus in the same way the human eye or a camera does. OTES’s telescope collects all of the infrared energy emitted by whatever is in its field of view. The spatial resolution varies depending on the distance of the spacecraft from the target (in this case, Bennu). It’s a bit like looking through the tube from a roll of paper towels – the farther away you are from what you’re looking at, the more things you see; when you get closer to whatever you’re looking at, you see a smaller portion of it. When the spacecraft is at a moderate distance from Bennu, such as 5 km (during the survey part of the mission), OTES sees a spot on the surface that is about 40 m in diameter. In the reconnaissance phase of the mission, OTES has a spatial resolution that is closer to 4 m. OTES has no ability to point itself – it looks straight out from the spacecraft – so to see other places on the surface, OTES relies on the spacecraft to move the OTES field of view across the surface of Bennu.
As OTES measures the mineral signatures and temperatures of many spots, the information from each spot is placed on a map to understand the whole of Bennu. In this way, one can look at where on the surface different minerals are found, how particle sizes change across the face of the asteroid, and obtain critically important context information for the samples that OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth.
Legend to Figure 94: From left to right are the sunshade, the telescope, the aft optics plate (the moving mirror assembly is at top, and the beamsplitter is the greenish circle), the electronics board (green card), and the instrument enclosure (with triangular flexure mounts for attaching OTES to the spacecraft).
REXIS (Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer)
REXIS, a student collaboration experiment, is a joint venture of MIT/SSL (Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Space Systems Laboratory) and the Harvard-Smithsonian CfA (Center for Astrophysics). REXIS significantly enhances OSIRIS-REx by obtaining a global X-ray map of elemental abundance on Bennu.
REXIS is a small (2.7kg), compact X-ray imaging camera with a ~30º field of view that will measure and image the X-ray lines (fluoresced by incident solar X-rays) which reveal the surface composition (O, Mg, Si, S, Fe, etc.) of the Near-Earth asteroid Bennu. 108) 109) 110)
REXIS is comprised of two subassemblies: the Spectrometer and the SXM ( Solar X-ray Monitor). The Spectrometer observes the asteroid while the SXM observes the Sun. Because the Sun’s X-ray output affects Bennu’s X-ray output, we need to keep track of what the Sun is doing, including solar flares, in order to calibrate the Bennu data correctly. The Spectrometer collects X-ray photons from Bennu using four CCDs (Charge Coupled Devices) but before the photons are detected by the CCDs, they pass through a coded aperture mask. The mask is a random pattern of open and closed holes in a thin stainless steel sheet. By analyzing how the shadow of the mask pattern is shifted on the CCDs, we can determine areas of high X-ray activity on the asteroid. This is how REXIS takes “images” of Bennu without any mirrors or lenses like the other instruments on OSIRIS-REx. 111)
REXIS is a coded aperture soft X-ray (0.3 - 7.5 keV) telescope that images X-ray fluorescence line emission produced by the interaction of solar X-rays with the regolith of the asteroid. REXIS will use a 2 x 2 array of CCDs (CCID-41 with Suzaku-XIS heritage) for X-ray detection, each with their 1 k x 1k 24 µm pixels binned by a factor of 32 into 0.768 x 0.768 mm "effective" pixels. Imaging is achieved by correlating the detected X-ray image with a 64 x 64 element random mask made of gold. REXIS will store each X-ray event in order to maximize the data storage usage and to minimize the risk. The pixels will be addressed in 64 x 64 bins and the 0.3 - 7.5 keV range will be covered by 5 broad bands and 11 narrow line bands. A 24 second resolution time tag will be interleaved with the event data to account for asteroid rotation. Images will be reconstructed on the ground after downlink of the event list (an individual image has a FOV of 401 m x 401 m before co-adding). Images are formed simultaneously in 16 energy bands centered on the dominant lines of abundant surface elements from O-K (0.5 keV) to Fe-Ka (7 keV) as well the representative continuum.
The REXIS science objective is to obtain an X-ray (0.3-7.5 keV) global map of the elemental abundance of the asteroid Bennu, thereby providing a complementary understanding of the globally representative context of the returned sample.
TAGSAM (Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism)
The TAGSAM is the key flight system component, used for making contact and acquiring sample from the surface of Bennu during the TAG mission phase. TAGSAM is designed to collect greater than 150 g to provide margin to the 60 g mission requirement. The TAGSAM functions by fluidizing regolith with high pressure gaseous nitrogen flow to transport it to a sample container. The TAGSAM is made up of a single planar, articulating arm with redundant motor windings at the shoulder, elbow, and wrist and provides large structural, torque, and alignment margins, ultimately ensuring successful sample acquisition and stowage of the TAGSAM head into the SRC (Figure 97).
TAGSAM is an elegantly simple device that satisfies all sample-acquisition requirements. TAGSAM consists of two major components, a sampler head and an articulated positioning arm. The head acquires the bulk sample by releasing a jet of high-purity N2 gas that “fluidizes” the regolith into the collection chamber. The articulated arm, which is similar to, but longer than, the Stardust aerogel deployment arm, positions the head for collection, brings it back for visual documentation, and places it in the Stardust-heritage SRC (Sample Return Capsule).
Radio Science will determine the mass of Bennu and estimate the mass distribution to 2nd degree and order, with limits on the 4th degree and order distribution. Knowing the mass estimate and shape model, the team will compute the bulk density and apparent porosity of Bennu. These data are obtained by combining radiometric tracking data with optical observations, supplemented by OLA altimetry data. Together, this information constrains the internal structure. Most importantly, the gravity field knowledge provides information on regolith mobility and identifies areas of significant regolith pooling.
TAG (Touch-And-Go) Phase Overview
The TAG Phase has a set of driving requirements (Table 3) to collect a sample and ensure spacecraft safety. The primary TAG activities include a set of three maneuvers to reach the surface: Orbit Departure, Checkpoint, and Matchpoint. This sequence targets the desired TAG site with the desired velocity at the correct time. Accurate position and velocity are crucial to ensure spacecraft safety and mission success (Ref. 3).
Key driving requirement
Collect > 150 g of Bulk Sample (Level 3 requirement, provides margin to 60 g Level-2 mission requirement)
TAG contact position error < 25 m
< 22 m
TAG contact velocity error < 2 cm/s
< 2 cm/s
Two or more contact detectors
IMU & Arm Microswitches
Onboard time of touch error < 8 s
< 6 s
Tip over < 45º during contact
Escape maneuver after contact
Sample mass measurement accuracy < 90 g
< 49 g
The primary TAG activities include a set of three maneuvers to reach the surface: Orbit Departure, Checkpoint, and Matchpoint. This sequence targets the desired TAG site with the desired velocity at the correct time. Accurate position and velocity are crucial to ensure spacecraft safety and mission success.
An overall summary of all the TAG activities is shown in Figure 98. The clock starts ticking for the TAG phase timeline once the final RWA momentum desaturation is performed roughly 9 days before contact. This final desaturation prevents orbital perturbations as the Flight Dynamics team performs orbit determination and refines the maneuvers for TAG. Following the final desaturation, the SMM (Sample Mass Measurement) procedure is executed to determine the baseline inertia of the sampler arm prior to collecting sample. By measuring the spacecraft inertia before and after collection, the collected mass can be measured. After a few days of orbit determination, a very small (< 1 mm/s) phasing burn is performed to tweak the orbit and align OSIRIS-REx at the right place at the right time for the orbit departure maneuver.
The DSN (Deep Space Network) ground stations of NASA provide coverage for a high gain telecom pass to upload the final TAG sequence command blocks. This command upload includes all the details to allow the spacecraft to run autonomously to perform the maneuvers, allow onboard navigation and maneuver guidance updates, fault protection and safety corridor monitoring, contact detection and sample collection, and finally the back-away maneuver and recovery reconfiguration. Without this final command upload, the spacecraft would simply remain in the 1 km Safe Home orbit to allow the team to restart the TAG clock when ready.
After the orbit departure maneuver, the spacecraft slews to an attitude to allow telecom coverage for ground to assess the burn performance. While the spacecraft has all necessary tools onboard to ensure safety, it is desirable for the ground to also monitor progress and safety. However, with a roundtrip light time of ~30 min, it is necessary for the spacecraft to be very robust at autonomously ensuring safety and not relying on ground intervention. While in this attitude the TAGSAM arm is moved into the sampling configuration using onboard potentiometer checks to verify final positioning.
The spacecraft then slews into an attitude to allow asteroid imaging with the NavCam (part of the TAGCAMS suite). These images support optical navigation both on the ground for reconstruction purposes as well as onboard the vehicle if necessary. The primary onboard navigation sensors for TAG are the redundant GN&C lidars. The lidar alone provides the necessary data to update onboard navigation, perform maneuver guidance, and monitor for range and rate safety to the surface. However, OSIRIS-REx has included onboard NFT (Natural Feature Tracking) algorithms to process the NavCam images as a backup to the lidar baseline. This offers two independent, onboard navigation techniques to meet all TAG requirements.
The lidar collects range data in the look-ahead inertial-fixed attitude and also in the final TAG inertial-fixed attitude as shown in Figure 98. Onboard processing determines the time that a configurable lidar range threshold is first crossed, providing in-track orbital knowledge. Lidar range measurements close to Checkpoint provide radial knowledge, and these two pieces of information go into a simple polynomial based algorithm to provide an update to the Checkpoint orbital state. The updated state is fed through a guidance algorithm to adjust the Checkpoint and Matchpoint burns to remove known trajectory dispersion and reduce the TAG contact position and velocity errors. 112)
If NFT is used instead of lidar, the NavCam images that are collected are processed onboard to identify known surface features. The known features, as determined from ground tools utilizing a high accuracy asteroid shape model and the known TAG trajectory, are stored in a catalog and rendered onboard to represent their expected appearances. A correlation algorithm finds where the catalog features are in the images, and provides measurements to a Kalman Filter that estimates the orbital state of the spacecraft. The state estimate from NFT can be used with the same maneuver guidance algorithm to update the Checkpoint and Matchpoint burns.
Prior to the Checkpoint burn, the solar arrays are raised into the “Y-wing” configuration to minimize the chance of dust accumulation during contact, as well as provide more ground clearance in the case the spacecraft tips over (up to 45º) during contact. At this point, the spacecraft is in final TAG attitude and physical configuration ready for contact. If anything is determined out of bounds by the onboard fault protection, the spacecraft simply aborts the remaining TAG sequence and performs a back-away maneuver that escapes the asteroid’s gravity (>0.5 m/s burn ensures escape) to allow ground to troubleshoot.
Upon Checkpoint burn completion, the onboard fault protection begins monitoring the approach state to ensure the spacecraft is within a safe corridor. Prior to Checkpoint, the spacecraft is on a passively safe trajectory and thus does not need to actively monitor range. Upon Matchpoint completion, the spacecraft attitude control system is set up to allow thruster control if the rates or position errors get above a deadband. This design helps mitigate unnecessary thruster firings prior to contact, thus reducing the likelihood of surface contamination from unreacted hydrazine. The design also provides the torque authority necessary to ensure spacecraft safety by not tipping over more than 45º.
All of the above activities are rehearsed prior to the actual TAG event. The Checkpoint Rehearsal demonstrates that the navigation and spacecraft configurations are achieved properly prior to the Checkpoint burn. The Matchpoint Rehearsal demonstrates the final two burns would have delivered OSIRIS-REx to the TAG site within the required accuracy. Each rehearsal takes three weeks to perform and evaluate before moving on to the next step. Thus, the system is very well characterized and understood prior to the actual TAG event. The slow orbital velocity of TAG provides these excellent rehearsal opportunities and ability to repeat events as necessary.
At 5 m above the surface during the TAG event, as determined by either the lidar or NFT, the spacecraft arms the TAGSAM gas bottle pyro valve to fire upon contact declaration. The TAGSAM arm spring assembly helps rebound the spacecraft from the surface while simultaneously keeping the head on the surface during the brief collection event. Depending on the asteroid surface properties, the contact event duration can be as short as 2 seconds or as long as 20 seconds. The spacecraft design has been rigorously analyzed to support the wide variation in surface properties that will not be fully understood until we make contact.
Once contact is declared, a timer begins to allow for up to 5 seconds of collection before the back-away maneuver initiates to safely depart the asteroid. Immediately after the back-away completes, the spacecraft slews to a nominal sun attitude and reconfigures the solar arrays and sampling arm to allow power and thermal recovery.
After sufficient recovery time, the data collected during TAG by the various spacecraft sensors, cameras and science payloads is downlinked. Images during the full TAG sequence will aid in understanding exactly where contact was made and the surface/regolith response to the sampling event. The spacecraft also provides important details on sensed accelerations to understand the surface contact dynamics. The ground operators then kick off a sequence to perform a stop burn to halt the drift away from the asteroid in case it’s necessary to go back for a second sample attempt. If all goes as planned on the first attempt, then the spacecraft simply waits far away from the asteroid until it’s time to head back to Earth.
To further assess TAG success, the spacecraft takes images of the sampler head to qualitatively determine if sample was collected, and performs the SMM procedure to measure change in inertia and quantitatively measure the collected sample mass. If sufficient sample is collected, then the sampler head is permanently stowed inside the SRC to complete the TAG phase.
Flight Dynamics Overview
Leading up to a TAG attempt, the spacecraft is in a 1km circular “Safe Home” orbit about the asteroid parallel to the Sun terminator plane. The orbit is designed to be slightly behind the Sun terminator plane so that the sunward component of the asteroid’s gravitational pull counteracts the solar radiation pressure. This stable orbit allows for better prediction of the spacecraft state and removes the need for orbit maintenance.
Optical Navigation (OpNav) is performed using one of the redundant NavCams. During the mission phases prior to TAG, the entire asteroid surface is imaged and a full shape model is created. In the TAG phase, the OpNav process involves taking asteroid images from the terminator orbit and registering them to the asteroid model via ground processing. The registered images provide accurate measurement information that is used in the orbit determination process.
The spacecraft begins the TAG sequence in the Safe Home orbit, and the orbit departure latitude is chosen to be the negative of the TAG site latitude. A small maneuver (<1 mm/s) is used to adjust the phasing of the orbit to achieve the ideal time of orbit departure relative to the asteroid surface. When the spacecraft crosses the orbit departure latitude on the morning side of the asteroid, the orbit departure maneuver is performed with the goal of arriving at the 125 m altitude Checkpoint position 4 hours later. The trajectory sequence is depicted in Figure 98.
When the Checkpoint position is reached, the Checkpoint maneuver is performed to cancel out the majority of the surface-relative lateral velocity and begin descending towards the surface. The Checkpoint maneuver is performed to allow the spacecraft to maintain its inertial-fixed attitude.
After 10 minutes, the spacecraft reaches the Matchpoint at an altitude of 55 m. The Matchpoint maneuver reduces the rate of descent sufficiently to achieve a TAG vertical velocity of 10 cm/s. TAG occurs approximately 10 minutes after the Matchpoint maneuver.
The Flight Dynamics System has a requirement to deliver the spacecraft to within 25 m of a given TAG site with a CI (Confidence Interval) of 98.3%, which is approximately 2.85σ for a two dimensional Gaussian distribution. The 98.3% CI is an allocation of the overall mission-level requirement on the probability of successfully acquiring sufficient sample with a single TAG attempt. Three TAG attempts have been accounted for in the schedule, propellant budget, and TAGSAM gas bottles in case the first attempt is deemed unsuccessful.
The maximum vertical velocity has been designed to 12 cm/s to maintain spacecraft safety. TAG is targeted to occur with 10 cm/s of vertical velocity and is required to have less than 2 cm/s of vertical velocity error (3σ). This velocity requirement supports meeting the TAG positional accuracy requirements as well as the safety requirements.
There are two other TAG contact safety requirements that are levied on Flight Dynamics. One is the horizontal velocity error must be under 2 cm/s (3σ) to prevent additional tip over and loading concerns. The other is the TAG angle due to absolute time of contact error must be less than 4.4º (3σ) (~3 minutes). Because the TAG attitude is inertial-fixed, contact timing errors create spacecraft attitude errors relative to the surface as the asteroid spins at 1.4º/min.
A Monte Carlo analysis is performed to determine the expected TAG dispersions. Many contributing error sources are modelled including departure state errors, maneuver execution errors, lidar instrument bias and noise, surface roughness effects on lidar measurements, spacecraft attitude errors, gravity model errors, solar radiation pressure errors, and asteroid spin state errors. All of these errors are applied as zero-mean Gaussian. The following graphs (Figure 99) show the dispersions for a representative Monte Carlo run with error ellipses provided.
TAG (Touch-And-Go) Constraints
The spacecraft physical configuration and system performance has been designed to provide maximum flexibility in selection of the latitude, longitude, and altitude of the TAG site on the surface of Bennu. However, within this design space, analysis to evaluate the limits of performance has been undertaken (Figure 100). Mission requirements regarding telecom during critical events, landing site tilt accommodation, and flight hardware thermal safety have been identified and analyzed across the surface of Bennu to provide insight into the relationship between the geographic and temporal variables. Results of this analysis are discussed briefly.
Detailed surface maps of the surface of Bennu do not currently exist, and will be generated during the Preliminary and Detailed Mapping phases of the proximity operations mission prior to selection of the TAG site. To ensure the spacecraft would have the ability to sample the most scientifically interesting region of Bennu, no assumptions on sampling latitude can be made prior to launch. Since Bennu is a retrograde rotator, with its North pole roughly perpendicular to the heliocentric plane, the only limitation on sampling latitude is driven by lighting requirements. The sampling site must be illuminated with at least a 5º elevation to provide optical images of the TAG event and the sampled surface. Given approximate latitude range of 85º North to 85º South, critical spacecraft performance has been evaluated for all epochs from the earliest possible TAG date up to asteroid departure in March 2021.
The low albedo of Bennu results in a surface that heats up rapidly from solar radiation soon after local sunrise. As a result, the ideal sampling site from a thermal perspective would be immediately after sunrise, before the surface temperature has had time to climb to unacceptable levels. Unfortunately, the relative placements of the Earth and Sun result in the Earth being below the horizon during much of the proximity operations timeline for early morning sampling locations. This would prevent a communications link during the TAG critical event period. Hence, the TAG site location is placed on the opposite side of Bennu, closer to the sunset terminator, about 65º from the local noon vector allowing for a modest surface cool down later in the afternoon. In general, this places the Earth in the zenith direction, as viewed from Bennu’s equator. During the majority of the mission, the spacecraft places the sun within the spacecraft’s X-Z plane of symmetry with the sun always in the positive X direction. However, during TAG, this general philosophy is modified to place the Earth within the same X-Z plane. To evaluate the ability of the flight system to maintain a communications link through either its LGA (Low Gain Antenna) or MGA (Medium Gain Antenna), the antenna offpoint margin was evaluated across the range of latitudes and possible sampling dates. The angular offpoint margin, defined as the amount of additional rotation the spacecraft can incur before the Earth moves past the 3 dB limit of satisfying 40 bps, is shown in the following graphs (Figure 101).
It becomes apparent from this survey that for latitudes from 60º North to 60 º South of the equator, 34 m DSN critical event coverage can be satisfied using the LGA with at least 10º of pointing margin until July 2020. Additionally, this offpoint margin can be considered a resource for sample site surface tilt accommodation. As long as a 3 dB margin is maintained for communications, the spacecraft can align with various TAG site surface tilts for sampling. For latitudes beyond 60º, critical event coverage requirements are best satisfied using the MGA. To provide for critical event coverage beyond July 2020, the mission has to use the 70 m DSN, which provides pole to pole coverage, using the LGA, with greater than 10º of offpoint margin, until Departure in March 2021. This data is shown in Figure 102.
The thermal subsystem uses a combination of radiators and heaters to keep the spacecraft components within their operating ranges. The radiators on the negative Z side of OSIRIS -REx are also protected from solar input by the addition of sun shields that keep the radiators shaded during the nominal sun pointed attitudes. However, as noted earlier, the TAG attitude is modified to place the Earth in the X-Z plane, thereby allowing the solar vector to obtain a positive or negative Y component in the body frame. To analyze this, a parametric analysis was used to determine the worst case date and latitude configuration that would result in the maximum solar input into the thermal radiators. This worst case condition happens in early April 2020, at Bennu latitude of 60º North. Analysis demonstrates the thermal subsystem can satisfy requirements at this worst case date and latitude combination. All other dates and latitude combinations are less stressing and satisfy requirements with larger margins.
Lockheed Martin designed and developed TAGSAM, which will collect ≥ 150 g of pristine asteroid regolith for return to Earth. Sampling occurs by releasing pressurized nitrogen gas into the asteroid surface, and collecting the mobilized material. The pristine nature of the sample is maintained by the precision-cleaned TAGSAM head and the use of high-purity N2 gas. Over 10 years of extensive testing demonstrates TAGSAM collects the required sample mass from a variety of surface types and particle size-frequency distributions.
Contact with the surface and injection of pressurized gas into the surface will transfer kinetic energy to near-surface asteroid material. Because of the low-gravity environment at the asteroid, material will be accelerated to speeds that exceed the escape velocity of the asteroid, and some material may travel towards the spacecraft. Key components of the spacecraft are specifically oriented away from the surface during TAG (e.g. active side of the solar arrays, star trackers). Other key components are housed behind spacecraft structure or insulation blanketing, and so are not exposed to the TAG event. For components that remain exposed, we have completed extensive studies to estimate the amount, speeds, and risk of damage. While there is a possibility that asteroid material will contact parts of the spacecraft other than TAGSAM or the sampling arm, there is little risk to the health of the spacecraft because of the low encounter speeds, and acceptable levels of maximum possible dust mass loading.
Sample Verification & Stowage
The spacecraft utilizes the conservation of angular momentum to determine how much sample was collected, leveraging a technique demonstrated on the Cassini mission. OSIRIS-REx gets high sensitivity on inertia measurement changes with the advantage of the long lever arm between the spacecraft CG and the sample location when in the configuration shown in Figure 103. The spacecraft spins 360º by driving the reaction wheels in the opposite direction, both before and after TAG. With known reaction wheel inertias, the necessary wheel speeds to reach the desired spacecraft spin rate enables solving for spacecraft inertia and ultimately the sample mass. Detailed error budgets and Monte Carlo simulations show the sample can be measured to an accuracy well within the 90 g peak-to-peak requirement.
While the sample mass is the key factor in determining if the mission requirements were met, images of the sampler head during and after TAG will also help give confidence that the sample collection was successful. The sampler head design provides visibility into the collection chamber interior. Images are collected at various angles to inspect for any regolith on the surface as well as in the chamber (Figure 104). By design, the regolith should not protrude from the sampler head to interfere with stowage. If images reveal unallowable protrusions, contingency procedures can remove them and ensure successful stowage.
Finally, when the sample is ready to be stowed, the SRC (Sample Return Capsule) lid is opened to allow the sampler head to move into position above the SRC capture ring (Figure 105). The StowCam (part of TAGCAMS suite) and potentiometers verify alignments prior to sending commands to drive into the capture ring. Once captured, the sampler head cannot come out, so then the head is severed from the arm. The arm is then retracted into the launch configuration and the SRC lid is closed and latched for Earth Return.
OSIRIS-REx is an exciting mission to collect and return to Earth a pristine, bulk sample of asteroid regolith. After an extensive remote sensing campaign, a TAG sample site is chosen and rehearsals are performed leading up to the final TAG event. Successful Flight Dynamics execution is critical to set the spacecraft on the proper initial trajectory for TAG, and then the autonomous systems onboard take over to update the final two maneuvers (Checkpoint and Matchpoint) and monitor performance to ensure safety through the collection event.
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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