The Osiris-REx Space Program - Mostly Science

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The Osiris-REx Space Program


Bryce Harper, a student at the University of Queensland, has written a great article for us on the Osiris-REx space mission. this is Bryce’s second article for us at Mostly Science (his first was on skepticism). Check out his newest article below and also his blog by clicking here.

Most of us will be familiar with the Rosetta probe, launched in 2004 along with its lander module, Philae. For those wondering what in the world I’m talking about, you may remember the pathetic controversy surrounding Dr. Matt Taylor’s shirt during the announcement (he was gifted the shirt by a female friend and the internet moralists decided it was a display of misogynist piggery, forcing a teary apology from a guy who just landed a washing-machine sized spacecraft on a moving comet). Rosetta travelled for 10 years before its rendezvous with the comet, unremarkably named, 67P. It was the first time in history that humanity marked her presence upon a Small Solar System Body (asteroids, meteorites, and comets). Philae, the landing module, was no bigger than a common household washing machine, and upon landing it appeared to have touched down in the shadow of small crevice, essentially losing its ability to obtain energy through its solar panels. After two days, contact with Philae ceased and the robot, although a huge success, had failed to undertake some of the more scientific objectives and measurements. Several months later Philae came back to life, presumably having found some sunlight to satisfy its energy needs, it made contact multiple times over a 30 day period before going dark again. It is unlikely contact will be re-established.

But don’t worry! NASA has a new mission and this time, not only does it plan on making contact (albeit brief), but it will be returning to Earth with our very first sample from an asteroid.

Dubbed the OSIRIS-REx mission, a robot is planned to visit an asteroid, extensively map its surface, before descending within a couple of meters to obtain a sample before beginning the long plummet back to Earth. This will mark the first time a sample from an asteroid will be returned to Earth, providing all goes well. The complexity of a mission like this, and the array of variables to consider, is so breathtakingly complex one can’t help but marvel at the beauty of its intricacies. Catching up with an asteroid hurling itself through space at a staggering 100 000 km/h is no easy task, and dictates a tight schedule on potential launch window for the machine (to put that speed into perspective for us humans it roughly equates to 27 kms per second). This launch window opens on September 3, 2016 and will remain open for 39 days, but here’s the catch, during each day of the window there is only a 30 minute period to launch the rocket itself.

You may be inclined to question why these launch windows are so small, I know I certainly did. To illustrate this painstaking attention to accuracy, check out this animation of the Rosetta probe dancing around the solar system swinging from planet to planet to gain the momentum needed to reach its target comet (click on the .gif to play).


So what is NASA doing up there anyway? The intended target of the mission is an Asteroid that goes by the name of Bennu. Like all things Astronomy I have no idea why it was named Bennu, but it’s sweet and seems like a fitting name for an asteroid that has a high probability of crashing into Earth somewhere in the 22nd century. According to researchers at the OSIRIS-REx mission, “[it] is likely to represent a snapshot of our solar system’s infancy.” There is also very good reason to believe that Bennu is rich in carbon, which we all know is a key element in the organic molecules necessary for life. After mapping the surface of Bennu for a period of 6 months from a distance of roughly 5kms, the probe will slowly manoeuvre within a few feet of Bennu before a robotic arm is deployed to retrieve the all-important sample. At no point will the probe actually touch down on Bennu – and let us not forget, this delicate ballet will be played out at 27 kms per second, relative to earth.


The feasibility of the long-term mining of small solar system bodies could still be a few decades away. However, this has not hindered the passing of laws in the United States during 2015 giving companies’ ownership rights over whatever materials they retrieve from Small Solar System Bodies. The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act does not give private companies the ability to own celestial bodies, merely the right to claim ownership over whatever they retrieve, possibly opening up a whole new market and a new way to mine resources without the continual damage of the environment here on Earth. Prior to this Act much of the ownership and property rights of space fell under the Outer Space Treaty. This treaty, drafted in the 60s, defined celestial objects as the “common heritage of mankind” and it forbids any militarization of space.

Judging by the pace of technological advancement over the past decade, the signing of new space laws, and the public’s growing interest in all things science: could we be living on the edge of change rivalling both the industrial and technological revolutions combined? We’ll just have to wait and see how the OSIRIS-REx mission unfolds.

For more information or to follow the journey, check out:
Note: The top image is courtesy of NASA and the gif is from the ESA.

Article edited by Christopher Haggarty-Weir.

Dr. Christopher Haggarty-Weir

Vaccines, Immunology, Infectious Disease, Drug Discovery/Design, Molecular Biology, Business and Philosophy.

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