UA-led OSIRIS-REx mission set to lift off Sept. 8 - Tucson News Now

UA-led OSIRIS-REx mission set to lift off Sept. 8

OSIRIS-REx in the clean room at Lockheed Martin in April 2016 after testing was completed and the TAGSAM arm was stowed for the final time.(Source: University of Arizona/Christine Hoekenga) OSIRIS-REx in the clean room at Lockheed Martin in April 2016 after testing was completed and the TAGSAM arm was stowed for the final time.(Source: University of Arizona/Christine Hoekenga)
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

A stellar idea conceived by University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin scientists will take a huge leap next week, a leap right into outer space.

NASA chose the OSIRIS-REx mission to reach out and touch an asteroid, then bring back a sample.

According to the countdown clock, on Friday, Sept. 2, it was six days to launch, but the real celebration is still two years away.

"As exciting as this launch is, it's not going to be anywhere near as exciting as when we actually get to the asteroid and we get to see this thing up close for the first time," said OSIRIS-REx Mission University of Arizona Associate Staff Scientist Carl Hergenrother.

Hergenrother has found four comets.  Three bear his name. He also has found countless asteroids. Hergenrother is the one who chose the asteroid, Bennu, to be the target of this UA-led NASA mission.

He said realizing it was just the carbon-rich asteroid the mission needed, "It was definitely a 'Eureka!' moment."

During the two years it takes the spacecraft to reach Bennu, scientists will have a lot of work to do.

"In a way, it's like spring training is over and the season is now starting and it's two years until we actually get to our asteroid, and there's still a lot more work we need to do to prepare for the actual encounter," Hergenrother said.

Once it arrives at Bennu, OSIRIS-REx will spend up to two years studying the ancient asteroid. Then the spacecraft will collect a small sample from it.

When the mission returns to earth in 2023, UA and other scientists will study the samples, hoping they hold the answer to some fundamental questions about the beginnings of our solar system. 

But why not just study the asteroids that have crashed to earth? 

"The problem is we don't know where these meteorites came from and, because they landed on earth, they're contaminated. Earth's water, earth's air, earth's life--organics. So by going to an asteroid and bringing back a fresh sample, we know it's not contaminated and we know where it came from. So it provides context that otherwise is missing," Hergenrother said.

Another aspect of the mission will look at something many of us have already been thinking about, maybe even worrying about, dangerous asteroids that could hit our planet.

"Once we characterize this asteroid and we understand how it's moving around the sun, it can better inform the models that scientists develop to predict future impacts, as well as to develop new techniques for actually preventing a future impact, if and when it ever happens," Hergenrother said.

OSIRIS-REx takes off for Bennu next Thursday, Sept. 8 at about 4 p.m. Tucson time. 

Interesting fact: OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.

Copyright 2016 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.

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