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Space Chase

The UA nabs an $800 million project to build an asteroid hunter

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The UA Lunar and Planetary Lab is headed back into space.

NASA announced last week that it had given the green light to OSIRIS-REx, an $800 million project that will send a robotic spacecraft to orbit near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36.

Over about a year and a half, the spacecraft will take photos and other readings before moving alongside the 500-meter asteroid to collect pieces of its surface and return the sample to Earth.

The mission is designed to give scientists a better understanding of asteroids, which may in turn help them understand how the building blocks of life appeared on the planet—and how a cataclysmic disaster could be averted if an asteroid ends up on a collision course with Earth.

"We're going for big-picture questions," says Lunar and Planetary Lab director Michael Drake, who was named principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx. "The ultimate goal is to learn: Where did we come from, and what's our destiny? The practical implementation of that is addressing where Earth's organic materials came from, that led to self-replicating life on Earth and us having this conversation today. And: Are we going to go the way of the dinosaurs? We will go the way of the dinosaurs if we don't learn how to deflect these hazardous objects."

If all goes according to plan, OSIRIS-REx will launch in 2016, catch up with asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2019 and land in the Utah desert with its samples in 2023.

It's no easy task to send a spacecraft into orbit around an asteroid, spend 18 months taking photos and other readings, zoom in close for just a few moments to give the surface a kiss, and then return to Earth with everything that you've gathered.

"There are a lot of challenges," Drake says.

One of them is figuring out how close the craft can get to the asteroid without colliding with it. That will require the team to use the onboard cameras and other instruments to get a closer look at the rock.

"One of the first things we have to do is determine mass and density, and from that, derive a safe orbital distance," Drake says.

A bigger challenge will be maneuvering the spacecraft close enough to the surface of the asteroid to blow a burst of nitrogen gas, knock some of the material loose, and then catch it in a container to be returned to Earth.

"We want to do that very carefully, so we have a series of baby steps," Drake says.

The asteroid will approach and back off, and then approach closer and back off. Each time, the team will get a better sense of how to program the OSIRIS-REx for the moment of actual contact.

Drake says that the UA's recent success with the Phoenix Mars Mission helped win the award. The UA Lunar and Planetary Lab worked with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to put a robotic lab on the arctic plains of Mars, where it sent back data for about five months in 2008 before it ran out of power and the harsh Martian winter buried it beneath frozen carbon dioxide.

Peter Smith, a Lunar and Planetary Lab professor who served as principal investigator for the Phoenix Mars Mission, will oversee the building of three cameras for OSIRIS-REx (which stands for Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer). One will allow the team to navigate the spacecraft; another will aid in mapping the asteroid once OSIRIS-REx pulls up alongside it; and the third will document the sampling process.

"It's like archeology in space," Smith says. "You're looking for evidence of the formation of the solar system and the introduction of organic materials on the early Earth. It's kind of an origins experiment, the idea being that these asteroids are pristine samples of the very first formation of the solar system. ... This particular one, which we know has organic materials, lets us look at the primitive organics that could have come to Earth from space, and could have been the building blocks of life on Earth."

There's another good reason for studying asteroids like 1999 RQ36: It has a roughly 1 in 1,800 chance of hitting the earth in the year 2182.

"These are the sorts of things we need to protect against, and we are the first species capable of doing it," Drake says. "In spite of movies like Armageddon, we actually don't have a clue about how to do it. You do not blow them up, like they did in Armageddon. That is completely stupid."

UA President Robert Shelton says the OSIRIS-REx award, which is the largest in UA history, demonstrates the advantages of investing in the university.

"This is something that all the people of Arizona should take pride in," says Shelton. "They have built this great university that can compete on a national scale and win this."

The mission could employ more than 100 students and help train the next generation of space scientists, plus boost the local economy and further cement the university's reputation as a leader in science and research.

Drake estimates that more than $200 million will be spent in Tucson over the life of the project.

"That's a significant economic impact on the city's economy," Drake says. "We're going to create a lot of jobs, and we're going to educate our students."

Drake notes that too many recent local headlines have focused on bad news: border strife, budget cuts, the January shooting rampage, etc.

"Our city and our state have not had very good news for quite a while," Drake says. "Almost everything that we hear has some element of doom and gloom to it, and this is a bright spot that highlights stuff Arizona does really well, and stuff that Tucson does really well."

He's hoping that Tucsonans—as well as people all over the world—will want to come along for the ride. He's even thinking about how to build an iPhone app so the public can follow the mission as it unfolds.

"We talked about a lot of things like that, and we're very conscious of technology," Drake says. "We don't have one (app) yet, but I'd be shocked if we haven't developed one. The taxpayer has a right to not only know what you're doing with the money, but to be part of the adventure."

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