Categories
Cosmic Space

OSIRIS-REx snags more than enough asteroid stuff

The leaders of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu, more than 200 million miles from Earth, say they’ve collected an overflowing amount of rocks and dust to bring back home.

Camera views of the probe’s sample collection head — captured on Oct. 22, two days after the collection maneuver — showed particles slowly escaping into space, through small gaps where rocks have wedged the container’s lid in an open position.

Based on what they’re seeing, scientists have concluded that they captured more than the 2 ounces (60 grams) of material that was considered the minimum requirement for mission success. The best guess is that the probe grabbed as much as 14 ounces (400 grams)

To make sure they maximize the return, team members are working to stash the disk-shaped head in its return capsule as soon as possible.

“The loss of mass is of concern to me,” the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million mission, said today in a news release. For that reason, the mission team decided to forgo a maneuver that would have involved spinning the probe and determining its moment of inertia, in order to get a better estimate of how much extra mass the sample added to the spacecraft.

“We were almost a victim of our own success,” Lauretta said.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said he’s “so excited to see what appears to be an abundant sample that will inspire science for decades beyond this historic moment.”

“Bennu continues to surprise us with great science and also throwing a few curveballs,”  Zurbuchen said. “And although we may have to move more quickly to stow the sample, it’s not a bad problem to have.”

This week’s sample collection maneuver — known as a touch-and-go, or TAG — served as the climax of a mission that began with the van-sized spacecraft’s launch in 2016. OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu two years ago and conducted a detailed survey, to prepare for the TAG as well as to study the 1,600-foot-wide asteroid’s composition in detail.

OSIRIS-REx carefully smashed its collection head into Bennu’s crumbly surface on Oct. 20. Scientists say the collection head ended up plunging 10 to 20 inches (24 to 48 centimeters) into Bennu’s crust. The head was beneath the surface for a mere six seconds, but that was enough time for a puff of nitrogen gas to blast a flurry of gravel and dirt into OSIRIS-REx’s dust catcher.

If the mission schedule holds true, OSIRIS-REx will fire its thrusters for the return trip next March, and drop off its precious sample capsule over the Utah desert during a flyby in September 2023.

OSIRIS-REx is an Egyptian-sounding acronym that actually stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.”  Bennu was chosen as the mission’s target because it’s rich in the carbon-bearing compounds that are thought to have served as the chemical building blocks for life on Earth.

Scientists hope that studying the sample up close will yield new insights into the origin of the solar system and the workings of astrobiology. The mission is also designed to help scientists figure out what kinds of resources could be extracted from asteroids, and what strategies would work best if a potentially hazardous asteroid ever had to be diverted.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Images show OSIRIS-REx made ‘a good mess’ on asteroid

The first pictures from the OSIRIS-REx probe’s brief touchdown on the asteroid Bennu have boosted scientists’ confidence that they’ll be getting a good sample of out-of-this-world dust and gravel when the spacecraft swings back to Earth.

“We really did kind of make a mess on this asteroid, but it’s a good mess,” the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million NASA mission, said today during a news briefing at which the imagery was released.

The image sequence shows OSIRIS-REx’s arm smashing a foot-wide, circular sample collection head — known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM — down into Bennu’s crumbly surface, more than 200 million miles from Earth. The impact, and a well-timed blast of nitrogen gas, sent bits of material flying into space.

Based on an analysis of the images, the collection head penetrated about an inch (2 centimeters) beneath the surface, shattering a rock in the process. “Literally, we crushed it,” Lauretta said.

The collection head was designed to snare some of the material that was ejected during the touch-and-go. It was in contact with Bennu’s surface for only six seconds, but the probe’s performance during the maneuver was “as good as we could have imagined,” Lauretta said.

That’s good news for OSIRIS-REx’s scientists and engineers, who have been tasked with bringing back at least 60 grams (2 ounces) of material from the asteroid in 2023.

The van-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was launched in 2016 and arrived at the roughly 1,600-foot-wide asteroid two years ago. The Oct. 20 operation marked the first time NASA tried grabbing a sample of an asteroid for return to Earth. (The Japanese have done it twice in the past 15 years.)

Scientists hope the fresh sample of material from a multibillion-year-old asteroid will bring new insights about the origins of the solar system and the chemical precursors of life.

“Origins” is the first word in the phrase that forms OSIRIS-REx’s Egyptian-sounding acronym: “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.” The mission is also designed to help scientists figure out what kinds of resources could be extracted from asteroids, and what strategies would work best if a potentially hazardous asteroid ever had to be diverted.

In order to gauge the success of the sample collection effort, OSIRIS-REx’s team had to wait for imagery and data to be transmitted overnight. Lauretta said the crucial images were received at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area near Denver at 2 a.m. and assembled into a video showing the full sampling operation.

“I must have watched it about a hundred times,” Lauretta said.

Just after the touch-and-go maneuver, the spacecraft began backing away from the asteroid surface. It’s due to go into a holding pattern at an altitude of about 50 miles (80 kilometers) on Oct. 23.

Although the initial indications look good, scientists aren’t yet certain whether the operation grabbed enough of a sample to satisfy the mission requirements.

In the days ahead, they’ll turn the sampling arm toward the spacecraft and capture imagery of the inside of the sample collection head. They’ll also spin the spacecraft and measure changes in its moment of inertia, to estimate how much extra mass is now being carried.

If scientists determine that less than 60 to 80 grams of material was collected, they could try again at a different site on the asteroid’s surface in January. But if they’re good to go, OSIRIS-REx will start heading back toward Earth next March, and drop off the sample capsule over Utah in 2023.

Lauretta said he hasn’t gotten much rest over the past few days. “Science never sleeps in these kinds of conditions,” he said.

Now he’s ready for a change.

“The only thing I’m looking forward to is maybe being able to sleep well tonight, knowing that we’ve had a job really well done,” he said.

Categories
GeekWire

OSIRIS-REx touches down to grab bits of an asteroid

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe reached the climax of its seven-year round trip to deep space today and briefly touched down on a near-Earth asteroid, propelled by thrusters made in the Seattle area.

Scientists and engineers at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area in Colorado received word at 4:12 p.m. MT (3:12 p.m. PT) that the touch-and-go maneuver at asteroid Bennu was successful, sparking cheers and fist-shaking. The maneuver was aimed at collecting samples of dust and gravel on the asteroid’s surface.

Mission team members wore masks and tried to observe social distancing as a COVID-19 safety measure, but some hugged nevertheless.

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” said the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the mission. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

All 28 of the rocket engines on the van-sized OSIRIS-REx probe were built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., and provided to Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft’s main contractor.

“The sample collection portion of the mission requires our engines to perform with extremely high precision, with no room for error,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s CEO and president, Eileen Drake, said in a pre-touchdown news release.

Fred Wilson, the head of business development for space systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne Redmond, said there was “a lot of excitement” at the Seattle-area facility when the crucial maneuver took place.

“These engines that we built roughly six years ago and shipped off … they’re doing their job out there,” Wilson told me after the encounter.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

First Mode gets in on Psyche mission to asteroid

Seattle-based First Mode has been awarded a $1.8 million subcontract from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build flight hardware for NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which is due to conduct the first-ever up-close study of a metal-rich asteroid.

Under the terms of the firm, fixed-price contract, First Mode is to deliver a deployable aperture cover that will shield Psyche’s Deep Space Optical Communications system, or DSOC, from contamination and debris during launch. The contract calls for the hardware to be delivered in early 2021.

Psyche is set for launch in 2022, and after a years-long cruise that includes a Mars flyby in 2023, it’s scheduled to arrive at the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt in early 2026.

This won’t be the first visit to an asteroid, but it will be the first visit to an asteroid that’s primarily made of nickel and iron rather than rubble, rock or ice. Scientists say the 140-mile-wide hunk of metal could be the exposed core of a protoplanet that was stripped of its rocky mantle early in the solar system’s history.

In addition to studying the asteroid Psyche, the spacecraft will test laser-based communications with Earth from deep space. The DSOC system’s aperture cover is designed to open early in the mission to kick off the technology demonstration.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Asteroid Day serves as a teachable moment

Today’s 112th anniversary of a close brush with a cosmic catastrophe serves as a teachable moment about the perils and prospects posed by near-Earth asteroids.

Asteroid Day is timed to commemorate a blast from space that occurred over a Siberian forest back on June 30, 1908. The explosion, thought to have been caused by the breakup of an asteroid or comet, wiped out millions of acres of trees — but because the area was so remote, the death toll was minimal.

Because of the Tunguska blast and more recent close calls, such as the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor blast, the threat from above is being taken more seriously. And although a Seattle-area asteroid mining venture called Planetary Resources fizzled, experts say the idea of extracting resources from near-Earth asteroids is worth taking seriously as well.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Headline-grabbing asteroid will totally miss us

An artist’s conception shows asteroids zipping past Earth. (NASA Illustration)

The bad news is that an asteroid of city-killing proportions is heading in our direction, but the good news is that it’ll miss us on the night of June 6 by 3.2 million miles.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Planetary Resources’ hardware is going, going, gone

Rich Reynolds, an employee of James G. Murphy Auctioneers, keeps an eye on the thermal vacuum chamber in the machine shop at Planetary Resources’ former HQ. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

REDMOND, Wash. — Wanna buy a used thermal vacuum chamber?

If you have a sudden yen to replicate outer-space conditions, it behooves you to check out today’s online-only auction of the hardware left over from Planetary Resources, the Redmond venture that aimed to create a trillion-dollar asteroid mining industry.

But don’t delay: By this evening, everything — from the 10-foot-tall vacuum chamber in the first-floor machine shop, to the dozens of laptops and chairs spread out in the second-floor workspace, to the satellite dish on top of the office building in Redmond — will have gone electronically to the highest bidders.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

ConsenSys sets Planetary Resources’ ideas free

Asteroids game
An Asteroids arcade game from Planetary Resources’ breakroom is among the items to be auctioned off next month. (James G. Murphy Co. Photo)

It’s been a year and a half since the assets of Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining venture headquartered in Redmond, Wash., were acquired by a blockchain venture called ConsenSys. Now we’re finding out what ConsenSys is doing with those assets.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Asteroid probe carries samples back toward Earth

Asteroid Ryugu
An image from Hayabusa 2’s camera shows the half-mile-wide, diamond-shaped asteroid known as Ryugu receding in the metaphorical rear-view mirror. (JAXA, Chiba Institute of Technology and Collaborators)

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft and its science team bid a bittersweet farewell to the asteroid Ryugu, 180 million miles from Earth, and began the months-long return trip to Earth with a precious set of samples.

“This is an emotional moment!” the team tweeted on Nov. 12.

“It’s sad to say goodbye to Ryugu,” project manager Yuichi Tsuda said at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s command center. “Literally it has been at the center of our lives over the past one and a half years.”

The farewell isn’t finished quite yet, however. Over the next few days, Hayabusa 2’s camera will capture pictures of the half-mile-wide asteroid as it recedes into the background of space. Then the probe’s field of view will turn back toward Earth for the return journey.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Categories
GeekWire

Pining for space mining after Planetary Resources

Planetary Resources asteroid mining
An artist’s conception shows Planetary Resources’ Arkyd 300 spacecraft prospecting amid a cluster of asteroids. (Planetary Resources Illustration

It’s been a year since the Redmond, Wash.-based asteroid mining venture known as Planetary Resources was acquired by ConsenSys and pivoted to blockchain projects in space — but the idea of mining space resources still resonates among those who backed the venture.

One big resonance relates to the effort that rose from Planetary Resources’ remains: Last month, ConsenSys Space unveiled its first project, a crowdsourced satellite-tracking campaign called TruSat.

In a notice posted online, Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, said his former company “facilitated a huge forward step in progress in technology, business and mindset — and we’re seeing similar steps forward across the entire space industry.”

Now Lewicki is working on TruSat and other blockchain-based collaboration platforms for space applications. “I believe that decentralizing, democratizing and diversifying space endeavors can be a pivotal next forward step,” he wrote.

Lewicki expanded upon the connection between Planetary Resources and ConsenSys Space last week, during a tutorial for TruSat’s first group of “test pilots.”

Get the full story on GeekWire.