UA team celebrates asteroid arrival, prepares for next steps

Asteroid rendevous - Osiris-Rex arrives at Bennu

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Cheers and high fives were shared by members of the OSIRIS-REx mission Monday morning as the spacecraft arrived at its target, asteroid Bennu.

Following the successful arrival, Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta joked during a press conference that he enjoys sharing details of the mission with the public but he was already eager to return to work. Today is one that's been in his calendar for the last decade.

"Moments like that in life are so rare and so precious," he said. "I always try to take time to really appreciate it. I kind of pay attention to all the details, how does the coffee smell, how do the birds sounds out on my patio in the morning, what does the sunrise look like on my drive into work?'"

Lauretta has plenty of other dates to savor in his calendar. The next is tentatively July 4, 2020 when OSIRIS-REx is expected to land on Bennu to begin taking samples.

"When we send the spacecraft down to the surface of the asteroid to pick up that material, that's the most nail biting moment of the mission for sure," he said.

It will all be worth it.

Lauretta compared the moment of finally having the samples return to Earth in September 2023 as the best Christmas morning imaginable. He'll be sharing that moment with a team of experts and students from the University of Arizona.

While the program could potentially answer life's big questions about who we are, it's also an incredible learning opportunity for Wildcats in Tucson across a diverse field of disciplines.

"We have a lot of challenges coming up here scientifically, engineering, politically, economically, and we need talented, motivated, knowledgeable people to solve those challenges and having them work on a program like this when they're in their educational years is one of the best ways to insure the future."

Keara Burke, a student at the university, is an Image Processing Intern. She joined Lauretta and UA President Dr. Robert Robbins on stage for Monday's press conference. Some of her responsibilities have Burke examining images of Bennu to determine the location of hazardous boulders that could disrupt the landing and larger pebbles that would make sample collection more difficult.

With a project like this on her resume, Burke's plans for the future are wide open. She's still undecided on what's next, but she's focused on her priorities right now.

"I need to count rocks and graduate," she said with a smile.

The public can help with that rock counting when the mission begins its citizen scientist program. Burke said it won’t necessarily lighten her workload, but the more eyes on Bennu to spot potential hazards, the better chance the team has of securing a safe landing.

Copyright 2018 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.