Scientists in Central Florida had been waiting for Thursday night’s launch for years.
It was carrying a unique spacecraft that has just begun its 84-million-mile journey to an asteroid. And then it has to come back again.
NASA launched the OSIRIS-REx craft from Space Launch Complex 41, sending a fireball into the sky at 7:05 p.m. The craft is en route to the Bennu asteroid, where it will collect a sample and return it to Earth Sept. 24, 2023, for research.
Scientists, including some from University of Central Florida, will have plenty to do in the seven-plus years until then.
Computer simulations at the University of Arizona will replicate landings on various surfaces, in preparation for OSIRIS-REx’s brief interaction with the ball of ice and rock.
Bennu passes near Earth once every six years, ranging from 84 million to 126 million miles away from the planet.
They will also live test monitoring systems on the spacecraft with Earth and the moon serving as stand-ins for Bennu when OSIRIS-REx performs a fly-by of Earth in about a year.
“We have to calibrate and make sure our instruments work properly,” said University of Central Florida professor Humberto Campins a member of the mission’s science team. “It will allow us to test many things, including hardware and software and get some practice on that.”
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor Justin Karl said seeing OSIRIS-REx launch reminds people that space is still about exploring — especially as SpaceX and ULA launch more frequently from Florida.
“We have seen a lot of commercial payloads go up lately, but it’s exciting to see that NASA is still doing exploration,” he said. “It reminds people that space isn’t necessarily all about the almighty buck and that space travel and exploration has a lot of altruistic goals.”
Lockheed Martin-built OSIRIS-REx comes equipped with tools that will let scientists learn more about Bennu.
The spacecraft will perform two deep-space maneuvers to line itself up with Bennu’s flight path. In about one year, OSIRIS-REx will come closer to Earth, use the planet’s gravity to slingshot around and get even closer to Bennu’s location.
Bennu’s surface will be mapped during a roughly two-year period that starts in 2018 and brings OSIRIS-REx alongside the asteroid, which at 500 meters across has been compared to the size of a small mountain.
The asteroid rotates in just more than 4 hours, giving scientists multiple opportunities to map the surface in preparation for retrieving the sample.
“We will have to do our maneuvers to match the asteroid,” said Christina Richey, deputy program scientist at NASA’s planetary science division. “The whole thing is a delicate dance around the asteroid.”
Scientists will select 12 regions on the asteroid for further study and then select the one most likely to support an extended mechanical arm and a small pod, which will spend five seconds on the surface to collect dust and material in July 2020.
Richey said the signals that control OSIRIS-REx, which will be sent from Arizona, will take roughly 10 to 18 minutes to reach the craft.
When the craft reaches Bennu, scientists’ work will ramp up.
Researchers say the sample, which will be between 60 grams and 2.2 kilograms, should reveal more about Earth’s origins.
If all goes as planned, OSIRIS-REx — which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, and Regolith Explorer — will return to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023, giving scientists firsthand knowledge of the asteroid.
Scientists selected Bennu in 2008 for the mission because it met several criteria — flight-path stability and proximity to Earth, size and speed of rotation, and an unaltered, carbon-rich composition.
“This is going to be the gift that keeps on giving,” Richey said. “Future scientists will answer questions that we haven’t even thought of with this sample.”
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