Arizona team plans mission to investigate asteroid - myfoxcarolinas.com

Arizona team plans mission to investigate asteroid

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PHOENIX (KSAZ) - It will take 21 years and close to 1 billion dollars. But if all goes well, a University of Arizona scientist will make history when a NASA spacecraft returns part of an asteroid that could one day impact earth.

It's a mission that could be de-railed by what is happening in Ukraine.

It all began nine years ago when Professor Dante Lauretta got a phone call.

"The history goes back to 2004, I was a young assistant professor at the University of Arizona, and I got a call from the lab director Mike Drake," said Dante.

Then an assistant professor, Dante Lauretta was asked if he wanted to work on a mission to space.

"I thought about it for a little while saying, I don't know, I don't have tenure, it's a big risk, and a long timeline, but I absolutely can't turn down this opportunity," he said.

Now Lauretta leads a team of 100 UofA students and 60 full-time personnel out of a building in Tucson. It's an international effort involving NASA, Lockheed Martin, and hundreds more. That effort, launching one of the most complicated and ambitious space missions of all time.

"It's a full-time job and then some, absolutely," said Dante.

The mission is called "Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer", or OSIRIS REX for short. The goal is to send an unmanned spacecraft to the near earth asteroid Bennu and return to earth with a little piece of it. That may help scientists discover the origins of life on earth.

"We feel that early on asteroids like Bennu may have landed on the surface of the earth and seeded the surface with all of the materials that you are going to need to ultimately create the origin of life," he said.

In 2016 OSIRIS-REX will lift off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. In 2018 it will catch up to Bennu and begin to study it up close.

"We're looking for it's mass, it's rotation, it's state," said Dante.

The asteroid is no stranger to earth, it passes by once every 436 days. Scientists expect it may get a bit too close sometime in the next century.

"In about 120 years we think it will be a very close approach to the Earth, it might come right down to the surface and impact," said Dante.

And part of the mission is to determine how an asteroid like Bennu could be steered away from our planet because the impact would be unimaginable. Even from an asteroid just a half kilometer wide.

"That would create an explosion of about 3,000 megatons on the surface of the planet. For comparison, bombs in WWII were about 50 kilotons, so we're talking about thousands of times more powerful than a nuclear weapon," he said.

The mission's main objective begins about a year after it arrives. OSIRIS-REX will carefully move close to the asteroid for a touch and go. The spacecraft cannot land on Bennu because it doesn't have enough gravity to stay put.

"So the danger was the spacecraft will tumble or bounce away," said Dante.

Instead it will deploy a collection arm to capture some of Bennu's surface. "We'll fly in contact with the surface for five seconds, blow down some high pressure gas to stir up all the soil on the surface, and catch it in a big air filter, then five seconds later get away from the asteroid," he said.

Nine years from now whatever the spacecraft collects will be returned to earth and then studied at the lab in Tucson.

"We do not expect to bring back anything hazardous to the earth's biosphere," said Dante.

A countdown clock in the building's lobby showed 779 days, 5 hrs, 9 minutes until liftoff. It will all come down to the moment that OSIRIS-REX makes contact with Bennu.

"21 years, a billion dollars, it will all come down to five seconds of contact on the asteroid's surface... it will be a long time coming, and it will be my career on the line, so I will be as prepared as possible. But as I always say on this project, read or not, here it comes," he said.

And as if there wasn't enough pressure already Lauretta's "read or not" may depend on an unexpected political issue. US-Russian relations that are not exactly at a high point after the downing off a Malaysian jetliner over the Ukraine last week.

"There has been a lot of discussion that our Atlas 5 launch vehicle uses the RD-180 engines that are manufactured in Russia... right now everything looks good, we are on schedule, we expect our rocket engines to show up on time, fingers crossed," said Dante.

The White House has mandated that sanctions against Russia not include exported rocket motors. A 39-day launch window for OSIRIS-REX begins September 3rd, 2016.

For more on the mission and an animation visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/osiris-rex/

An extended interview with Dr. Lauretta has been posted here: http://youtu.be/JYTaqhlHnj0
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