An innovative NASA space mission with the ambitious aim of collecting samples from an asteroid in 2018 was given the green light, Wednesday.

NASA got the go-ahead to start construction of the spacecraft, flight instruments, ground system and launch support facilities for its Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer — OSIRIS-REx, for short.

The decision was made following a Mission Critical Design Review (CDR) held at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Littleton, Colo., April 1-9.

Welcoming approval for OSIRIS-REx, Gordon Johnston, OSIRIS-REx program executive at NASA HQ in Washington, DC, said, “This is the final step for a NASA mission to go from paper to product,” adding, “This confirms that the final design is ready to start the build-up towards launch.”

The launch date for OSIRIS-REx is scheduled for fall 2016, precedent to a rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu in 2018. Bennu is tiny in astronomical terms having a mean diameter of just 493 meters (about 1620 feet).

But the mission is a lengthy one and getting to the asteroid isn’t even the halfway point. Once samples have been collected from Bennu, returning these to Earth will take another five years, with mission completion slated for 2023.

As well as sample collection, OSIRIS-REx will go tooled up to learn as much as possible about Bennu. Five onboard instruments will remotely evaluate Bennu’s surface during a reconnaissance phase lasting more than a year. Towards the end of OSIRIS-REx’ sojourn on the asteroid, at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of asteroid samples will be collected for return to Earth and analysis during the 2020s.

After April’s CDR, Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx’ project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. acknowledged the tough schedule that lies ahead, commenting, “Successfully passing mission CDR is a major accomplishment, but the hard part is still in front of us -- building, integrating and testing the flight system in support of a tight planetary launch window.”

OSIRIS-REx has a number of key mission objectives, comprising:

1. Attempting to shed light on basic questions concerning the makeup of the very early solar system and the source of organic materials and water that made life possible on Earth.

2. Providing valuable information, contributing to NASA’s asteroid initiative, a framework for a future mission, also known as Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization (ARU) mission.

3. Supporting NASA’s efforts to understand the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.

4. Characterizing asteroids suitable for future exploration missions.

The ultimate goal of the asteroid initiative, bringing together the best of NASA’s science, technology and human exploration efforts, is to bring a small near-Earth asteroid into lunar orbit for later analysis both by unmanned missions a future manned mission.

The attempt to “lasso an asteroid” was announced, April 2013, as part of NASA’s $17.7 billion spending plans for 2014. If all goes to plan, it could see a major U.S. spaceflight goal, set by President Obama in 2010, accomplished by 2025. The ambitious scheme is reckoned to be a tougher assignment than landing a man on the moon.

NASA is keen that OSIRIS-REx is very much a public-facing mission, capturing the imagination. To that end, earlier this year, NASA in conjunction with The Planetary Society welcomed world participation with an invitation (still open) to anyone wishing to submit their names to be etched on a microchip aboard OSIRIS-REx.

Further details of how to participate in the mission can be found at The Planetary Society. The invitation to join in the OSIRIS-REx mission will remain open until September 30, 2014.



The Planetary Society

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