On Dec. 3, the OSIRIS-REx went into orbit around the asteroid Bennu, 241,000 to 209 million miles away from Earth (depending on its orbit). OSIRISREx is a spacecraft created to gather the largest sample of solid outer space material since the Apollo missions from 1969–1972, when the moon rocks were brought to Earth. For now, it will be scanning and mapping the entire surface of Bennu, which is 500 meters in diameter. The engineers’ planned method to make contact with the asteroid is called Tacsam. It will be a touch and go kind of mission, with only five seconds to collect samples with a vaccuum like arm. The team hopes to get at least 60 grams (a little more than 2 ounces) of pristine asteroid material to study.

The University of Arizona has partnered with NASA on this seven-year project and put in a great deal of research and planning, and has provided 150 students to help work on this mission. The UofA has been part of major NASA planetary explorations, including missions like HiRISE and Pluto New Horizons; it was also the first public university awarded a principal investigatorled mission, the Phoenix Mars mission.

For the next month OSIRIS-REx will perform flybys of Bennu’s north pole, south pole and equator. Then for the next 18 months researchers will survey the asteroid, looking for possible landing spots. The sample is scheduled to be retrieved in July 2020 and will hopefully return to Earth on Sept. 24, 2023, landing somewhere in Utah’s desert. OSIRIS-REx is two years into its seven year journey. It will be the first mission to retrieve a sample from an asteroid.

NASA believes the asteroid is a time capsule from the early solar system, rich with organic compounds that may have helped seed life on Earth. Keara Burke is a UofA student majoring in systems engineering and math; she plays an important role in this NASA mission. Her job is to examine surface images of the asteriod, then count every rock on Bennu and determine its size in efforts to find the perfect spot to collect the sample from. Burke says she had no special math or computer classes prior to college, and she encourages young people not to be afraid to try something new when they start at a university. “You can come to college and not be sure what you want to do and still get to this point, you justhave to be willing to seek out those opportunities,” she says.

When asked how he felt about the successful arrival of the spacecraft to Bennu on Dec. 3, Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx replied, “It’s like Christmas came early!”

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