Scientists at ARES are preparing to curate and analyze samples from the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid.
The Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx, was selected by NASA as the third mission in its New Frontiers Program. The robotic spacecraft will launch in 2016 and rendezvous with the near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36, renamed as Asteroid Bennu, in 2020. A robotic arm will collect at least 60 grams of material from the surface of the asteroid to be returned to Earth in 2023 for worldwide distribution by the NASA Astromaterials Curation Facility at JSC.
The target asteroid is believed to be a primitive type that is rich in organic matter. Such primitive asteroids contains original material from the cloud of dust and gas that gave rise to our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago and could yield important clues about its formation.
ARES curates seven different types of astromaterials, beginning with the 1969 return of lunar rocks from the Apollo missions and including NASA's recent Genesis Mission solar wind samples and Stardust mission cometary dust samples. Lessons learned at ARES from participating in these previous extraterrestrial sample return missions benefit sample protection, contingency planning and contamination control knowledge.
As Lead of OSIRIS-REx Carbonaceous Meteorites Working Group, Lindsay Keller is responsible for the analysis of carbonaceous meteorite samples that are analogous to the regolith expected on the surface of Bennu.
When the sample return from Bennu in 2023, Keller will investigate the mineralogy and chemistry of the samples at atomic scales using a state-of-the-art transmission electron microscope. The priority science goals of this study include investigating the effect of solar radiation on asteroidal surfaces, the geological history of the asteroid and the nature and origin of the first solar system solids.
As Lead of Sample Analysis Working Group, Co-I Scott Messenger is in charge of contamination knowledge studies of flight hardware to ensure the integrity of the collected samples. Messenger is also responsible for developing a coordinated sample analysis plan of the returned samples.
Messenger will study the isotopic properties of the asteroidal samples with a NanoSIMS ion microprobe, a powerful mass spectrometer for measuring isotopic compositions of microscopic samples. He will determine the age of the samples and study the properties of ancient stardust grains and organic matter that predate the origin of the solar system.
As Lead of OSIRIS-REx Sample Curation, Co-I Kevin Righter is responsible to define curation-related issues for the mission including contamination control and knowledge, the Sample Return Capsule recovery at the drop site Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR) in Utah, UTTR and ARES cleanroom construction, sample handling and distribution, sample documentation (imaging, catalog database development etc), and long-term curation planning to ensure the integrity of the collected samples.
As Lead of OSIRIS-REx Sample Site Science Working Group, Co-I Keiko Nakamura-Messenger is responsible for defining the strategy for selecting and characterizing the primary sampling site on Asteroid Bennu based on production and interpretation of the sample value maps. Nakamura-Messenger is also the deputy curation lead of OSIRIS-REx.
Read more about Keiko's contributions to OSIRIS-REx here.
The ARES curation group will be involved in several different aspects of the mission. Because the target asteroid is potentially carbon-rich, great care will be taken to ensure a contamination-free environment, part of which means monitoring all materials that go into the design and construction of the touch-and-go sample acquisition mechanism (TAGSAM) and the sample return capsule (SRC). Several years before the return of the sample to Earth, a curation laboratory dedicated to the OSIRIS-REx samples will be constructed. During sample recovery operations at the Utah Test and Training Range, a portable clean room will be established for the initial arrival of samples and preparation for transport to Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas.
Finally, the curation group will oversee the initial characterization, cataloging and distribution of samples to the science team and a large group of international scientists. In addition to collecting samples, OSIRIS-REx will gather data to help scientists better understand the physical characteristics of potentially hazardous asteroids. Data collected on its surface properties, internal structure and orbital dynamics can be used to help develop hazard mitigation strategies for deflecting asteroids that approach Earth in the future.
Asteroid Bennu is also a type of near-Earth asteroid that NASA is considering for human exploration missions as early as 2025. Information that OSIRIS-REx collects from Asteroid Bennu will help formulate the types of operations and identify the mission activities that astronauts will perform during their expeditions to these asteroids. Such information is crucial in preparing for humanity's next steps beyond low Earth orbit and on to deep space destinations.
For more details visit OSIRIS-REx official website: http://www.asteroidmission.org/
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