Bruce BettsMay 25, 2011

NASA Selects Next New Frontiers Mission

NASA has selected the OSIRIS-REx mission as the next New Frontiers mission. OSIRIS-REx (Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer) will be the first U.S. asteroid sample return. It is led by Principal Investigator Michael Drake at the University of Arizona.

I'm excited to say that the Planetary Society will also be involved with a number of activities to involve the public in the mission. As stated in the OSIRIS-REx Concept Study Report, Planetary Society "publishes OSIRIS-REx scientist- and engineer-authored articles; creates radio stories and holds interviews with OSIRS-REx personnel; collects names to be imprinted on a microchip and flown to RQ36 and back; runs the contest to name RQ36; holds a Planetfest at the time of asteroid sampling; and features images of RQ36 on the Planetary Society web site, and runs a 'choose your favorite OSIRIS-REx image' contest." More details on these activities will be coming out later.

OSIRIS-REx mission
OSIRIS-REx mission Image: NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona

After launching in 2016, OSIRIS-REx will approach asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2019. 1999 RQ36 is a 560 meter carbonaceous asteroid. It is seen as a sample of the early, primitive solar system -- a time capsule of the early solar system -- and is therefore of great interest to scientists. The team seeks to bring back samples that will include organic materials, potentially the building blocks of life. By getting the samples directly, scientists get geologic context, and samples that have not been contaminated on Earth, unlike meteorites that come to Earth. OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth between 60 grams and 2 kilograms of material in 2023.

The University of Arizona is partnering with a wealth of other organizations. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will provide overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft. The mission, excluding the launch vehicle, is expected to cost approximately $800 million.

The one previous sample return was the Japanese Hayabusa, which visited an S-type (stony) type asteroid. OSIRIS-REx will visit a C-type (carbonaceous) asteroid, which, based on telescopic observations, has much more in terms of organics, similar to asteroids that could have brought the building blocks of life to the early Earth.

1999 RQ36 is also a near Earth asteroid (NEA) that has a 1 in 1,800 probability of impacting Earth in 2182. OSIRIS-REx will track the asteroid determining its orbit carefully and be a good test of spacecraft interactions in a low gravity environment with an asteroid, relevant for future robotic missions and for future human missions. OSIRIS-REx also has a wealth of instruments to study the asteroid in situ. It will spend many months at the asteroid.

Congratulations to the whole ORISIS-REx team!

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