The new year started off on a promising note for a team of Goddard scientists and engineers who are key members of a proposed mission that will for the first time in space-exploration history return a large, pristine sample of a carbonaceous asteroid to Earth for detailed analyses.
On December 29, NASA announced that it had selected the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security-Regolith Explorer mission, also known as OSIRIS-REx, as one of three finalists for the Agency’s next New Frontiers mission. The other two proposals, managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, include the Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer. It would gather clues to Venus’s early history in part using a mass spectrometer developed by Goddard technologist Paul Mahaffy, who also is building a mass spectrometer for OSIRIS-REx. The third mission is MoonRise, a sample-return mission to the Moon’s south pole.
All three teams are receiving $3.3 million this year to conduct a 12-month Phase-A mission concept study. NASA then will select one of the three for full development. The selected mission must be ready for launch no later than December 30, 2018 and must not exceed $650 million, excluding the cost of the launch vehicle.
Goddard will manage OSIRIS-REx’s overall development and provide systems engineering and quality assurance as well as the mass and infrared spectrometers, under the direction of Robert Jenkens. Michael Drake, director of the University of Arizona’s (UA) Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, will serve as principal investigator and Lockheed Martin will develop the spacecraft, sampling mechanism, and sample-return capsule. In addition to Goddard and UA, Arizona State University and the Canadian Space Agency are providing instruments.
New Era of Planetary Exploration
If selected, OSIRIS-REx will usher in a new era of planetary exploration, said Bill Cutlip, who oversees the OSIRIS-REx proposal effort for the Goddard New Opportunities Office. “OSIRIS-REx’s target asteroid is a time capsule from before the birth of our solar system. I can’t emphasize enough the significance of this mission. This is going to be the first pristine sample from an asteroid — ever!”
As now conceived, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will rendezvous with an organic-rich asteroid after roughly three years of cruising through space. It will map and thoroughly characterize the object using a suite of scientific instruments, including a mass spectrometer provided by Mahaffy and an infrared spectrometer provided by Goddard scientist Dennis Reuter. It will then use its sample mechanism to collect up to 2 kg of regolith, which will be ferried back to Earth by way of a sample-return capsule that traces its heritage to NASA’s highly successful Stardust mission.
“This is a big step for exploration,” Cutlip added. “We will be operating around an asteroid for more than a year. The spacecraft will be there sending imagery in near-real time.”
Once the capsule lands at the Utah Test and Training Range, samples then will be curated at the Johnson Space Center and distributed to various laboratories for analyses that cannot be duplicated by spacecraft-based instruments or in-situ robotic rovers. The Goddard Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory will be one of the first labs to receive the samples. It also will coordinate the worldwide analysis of samples and controls.
“You can’t underestimate the value of a pristine sample,” Cutlip added. Meteorites, pieces of asteroids that break away and plunge to Earth, are “toasted on their way through Earth’s atmosphere,” Cutlip explained. “Once they land, they then soak up he microbes and chemicals from the environment around them.” With a pristine sample — especially one from an asteroid type not available in NASA’s meteorite collections — scientists will learn more about the time before the birth of our solar system, the initial stages of planet formation, and the source of organic compounds available for the origin of life, said Joe Nuth, OSIRIS-REx project scientist.
Sample return, however, isn’t the only objective.
The mission’s organizational structure directly support’s NASA’s goal to expand the pool of well-qualified principal investigators and program managers. Highly experienced individuals, who are assisted by capable younger deputies, fill all management positions. “Every role has a senior and junior person,” said Daniel Glavin, who will assist Mahaffy in the development of the mission’s mass spectrometer. “We want sustainability, which is especially important since the data will not be returned until 2023,” Glavin said.
The OSIRIS-REx samples will be available for generations of future scientists to investigate, just as samples brought back from the Moon during the Apollo program are available to scientists today.
The mission also wants to make sure it is proposing the best possible team, Cutlip added. Drake will serve as principal investigator, with Dante Lauretta of UA as his deputy. Nuth, meanwhile, will serve as the Goddard project scientist, supported by Jason Dworkin, who also directs Goddard’s Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory. In addition, Lockheed Martin has an unmatched legacy of success building robotic sample-return missions, including Genesis and Stardust, Cutlip added.
“If you’re going to do sample return, this is the team to do it with,” Cutlip said.
The OSIRS-REx mission would collect a sample from an asteroid similar to the one pictured here in this mathematically created rendition.
Goddard technologists win new work, secure follow-on funding to mature new technologies, formulate concepts, and validate new instrument concepts in flight demonstrations — successes that benefit Goddard and the scientific community as a whole.