OSIRIS-REx arrives at Cape Canaveral
The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) planetoid and surface sample return probe is one step closer to the celestial object known as 101955 Bennu with its delivery to Cape Canaveral in Florida on Friday, May 20.
The delivery of OSIRIS-REx from its Lockheed Martin assembly facility near Denver, Colorado, to the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility came courtesy of an Air Force C-17 cargo aircraft. The probe is now being stored at Kennedy’s Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility (PHSF).
“Delivering OSIRIS-REx to the launch site marks an important milestone, one that’s been many years in the making,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “The spacecraft has undergone a rigorous environmental test program in Denver but we still have plenty of work ahead of us. Many on our team have temporarily moved to Florida so they can continue final processing and have the spacecraft ready for launch in three and a half months.”
Inside the PHSF, OSIRIS-REx will undergo extensive testing in preparation for its launch to the near-Earth object (NEO) Bennu, scheduled for Sept. 8, 2016. The robotic explorer will be lofted into the heavens from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 411 rocket.
The probe will reach Bennu in 2018 to study the ancient object for six months before using a mechanical arm to grab a small sample of its surface and returning with the precious cargo to Earth in 2023.
OSIRIS-REx is a member of NASA’s New Frontiers series of medium-class planetary science missions. That rather elite group includes the New Horizons probe which made the very first flyby through the Pluto system in July of 2015 and the Juno vehicle which will go into orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016.
Telescopic observations from Earth have determined that Bennu is a B-type planetoid, a sub-type of the carbonaceous C-type planetoids. Such celestial bodies are thought to have changed little since the formation of the Solar System over 4.6 billion years ago.
By analyzing Bennu from orbit with the 9.8-foot (3-meter) cubical solar-powered probe and collecting a piece of it for delivery back to Earth, it is hoped scientists will be able to better understand the conditions of the earliest days of our cosmic neighborhood.
Scientists also want to further refine the orbital parameters of the small planetoid, which measures roughly 1,575 to 1,678 feet (480 to 511 meters) across. Circling the Sun once every 436.6 days, Bennu comes relatively close to Earth every six years. Scientists have determined there is a 1 in 1,410 (0.071 percent) chance of Bennu striking our home planet eight separate times between the years 2169 and 2199. Bennu is much larger than the object which struck the Tunguska region of Russia in 1908 and flattened 80 million Siberian forest trees over an area of 830 square miles (2,150 square kilometers).
“I’m extremely proud of our team and excited to be shipping the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to Kennedy Space Center,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We still have a few major milestones to go, but I’m confident that we’ll get them done and be ready to launch on time and begin our mission to Bennu.”
OSIRIS-REx will help to better determine if the planetoid is indeed a future threat to Earth and play a role in the development of missions to deflect such potentially hazardous asteroids.
The spacecraft also complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. This includes the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which aims to capture a surface boulder from another NEO and move it into a stable lunar orbit. The boulder will then be examined and sampled by a crewed mission using NASA’s Orion spacecraft.
The acronym OSIRIS was chosen in reference to the ancient Egyptian deity Osiris, the underworld lord of the dead. The name of this mythological god ties into Bennu’s potential for major destruction and death on Earth in the late 22nd Century. The planetoid received its name from a mythological Egyptian bird which may have been the inspiration for the Phoenix bird of Greek mythology. Bennu was also chosen due to its resemblance to a bird in flight.
A second OSIRIS-REx has been proposed for collecting surface samples from Phobos and Deimos, the two small moons of the planet Mars.
“This team has done a phenomenal job assembling and testing the spacecraft,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “As we begin the final preparations for launch, I am confident that this spacecraft is ready to perform its science operations at Bennu. And I can’t wait to fly it.”
Video courtesy of NASA Goddard
Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.