How Canada is helping NASA retrieve asteroid samples

Sonja Puzic,
Published Thursday, September 8, 2016 11:56AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, September 8, 2016 7:10PM EDT

A Canadian-made instrument will play a key role in NASA’s latest mission to solve some of the mysteries of our solar system.

The Canadian Space Agency has collaborated with NASA on the first U.S. mission to collect a sample from an asteroid and return it to Earth. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, targeting the distant asteroid Bennu, is carrying a Canadian laser that will create 3-D maps of the asteroid and help guide the mission.

The laser is called OLA, short for OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter. When OSIRIS-REx, which launched Thursday evening, reaches Bennu in 2018, OLA will spend six months mapping the asteroid’s surface to better understand its history and composition. That information will be used to pinpoint the best location for collecting the precious asteroid sample.  

The sample of gravel, dust and surface materials, which will be collected by the spacecraft’s robotic arm, is expected to return to Earth in 2023.

The Canadian Space Agency is investing $61 million in the OSIRIS-REx mission over 15 years to support the development of the OLA instrument. For its contribution to the mission, the CSA will receive a portion of the returned asteroid sample to be studied by Canadian scientists.

Michael Daly, a York University professor and OLA’s lead scientist, told reporters last month that the mission will help scientists better understand how the solar system formed. Since carbonaceous asteroids like Bennu were formed in the early stages of the system’s formation, they have a unique structure that is helpful to understanding the building blocks of the universe, Daly said. 

Cameron Dickinson of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the Canadian company that built OLA, said the laser consists of two boxes, each slightly smaller than a toaster oven, but the mechanism inside is very complicated.


The CSA says the laser’s precise measurements will “provide mission scientists with unprecedented information on the asteroid’s shape, topography, distribution of boulders, rocks and other surface features.”

Ahead of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft launch, Canadian scientists answered questions about the mission live on Facebook.