The team launching a mission to return at least 2.1 ounces of dirt from a near-Earth asteroid received a bit of a jolt last week when a SpaceX rocket set for its own launch exploded on a Florida launch pad.
But the disaster touched off a review of the launch pad and other areas surrounding the pad where the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will launch Thursday, a program manager for United Launch Alliance said Tuesday.
Scott Messer, ULA’s program manager for NASA missions, said SpaceX’s setback did not pose a risk to the Atlas V rocket, which was at its launchpad set to carry OSIRIS into space when the explosion happened.
“Our teams did an extensive walk through on the pad area and the (vehicle integration facility),” said Messer, whose company is a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. “The Atlas V vehicle was safely buttoned up and secure inside the VIF.”
OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, will begin its seven-year mission Thursday from Florida’s Space Coast.
The 115-minute launch window opens at 7:05 p.m.
The Lockheed Martin-built spacecraft will travel to the asteroid Bennu and arrive in 2018. After spending time coordinating its path with the asteroid, it is expected to collect a sample during a five-second process on July 4, 2020.
University of Arizona professor Dante Lauretta, principal investigator on OSIRIS-REx, said in a media conference Tuesday about the mission that the explosion rattled his nerves a bit but reinforced safety.
“Nobody likes to see your colleagues go through a day like they did,” said Lauretta, who teaches planetary science and cosmochemistry. “It was a stark reminder of the risk we face in this business. It made us look again at all of our processes and procedures.”
University of Central Florida physics professor Humberto Campins said he took SpaceX’s setback in stride.
“Accidents are very unfortunate but they are part of the process of inventing and perfecting new technologies,” he said.
Bennu was selected as OSIRIS’s target in 2008 because it was one of just five that met multiple criteria.
These include flight path stability and proximity to Earth, size and speed of rotation, and a carbon-rich compisition that has remained practically unchanged since they formed.
Campins said he expects Bennu to be rich in organic, undisturbed molecules that will be a window into Earth’s past.
“If we can understand what the inventory of building blocks was before life formed, we could have a better idea of how it can exist elsewhere.” Campins said. “Every piece of the asteroid tells a different story.”
If all goes as planned, OSIRIS will return to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023, giving scientists firsthand knowledge of the asteroid, which at 500 meters across has been compared to the size of a small mountain.
Lauretta said he started tracking the asteroid in 1999. Scientific tools will deploy to map the asteroid, giving more information on its composition.
Lauretta said the mission to Bennu means “great science ahead of us.”
“We are going out into the unknown,” he said. “Bennu is an unexplored world.”
“This is going to be a treasure trove of information and material for scientists yet to come,” he said.
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