NASA’s asteroid sampling mission is now in test phase, it has been announced on Wednesday, by representatives at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has just completed the instrument install/assembly stage, and is now one step closer to being launched in its groundbreaking quest.
It is expected that the takeoff will take place in around 10 months, the launch window starting on September 3, 2016.
The spacecraft will embark on a 7-year journey whose destination is asteroid Bennu, which has remained virtually unchanged since it was formed around 4.5 billion years ago.
Upon reaching the carbon-rich, 492-meter wide rock in August 2018, OSIRIS-REx will collect samples by vacuuming them from its surface.
At least 60 grams of soil and rocks will be brought to Earth in 2023, and these are expected to be the largest fragments retrieved from space ever since the lunar exploration programs conducted by the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1970’s.
The asteroid, which is located close to our planet, was chosen by researchers because there are suppositions it might contain “organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth”.
Therefore, analyzing Bennu more carefully might give new insight into the solar system’s origins and evolution. It might also allow scientists to understand how they could forestall a potential asteroid impact or change the trajectory of a comet in the future.
OSIRIS-REx, whose name is actually an abbreviation for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer” had all its scientific research instruments installed on it at Lockheed Martin Space System facilities, near Denver, Colorado.
Also, the spacecraft was equipped with OCAMS (OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite), a set of three cameras and spectrometers, which were especially conceived and manufactured by the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
The 3 instruments, known as SamCam, MapCam and Polycam, will be analyzing and mapping the asteroid’s surface, while keeping at a safe distance, between 0.7 km and 5 km.
They will also help choose the best area from which a sample will be collected, and assist in stowing the fragments securely on board.
Thanks to its importance in broadcasting images back to Earth while the spacecraft will be near Benu, the trio is actually known as the “mission’s eyes”, because it will allow its controllers to monitor the operations, as they unfold.
“All in all it was flawless installation, with the three cameras and the control electronics making it on the spacecraft well in advance of when we originally planned these activities”, announced Dante Lauretta, professor of Planetary Science and Cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona, and principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx.
Now, the next stage in the ATLO process (assembly, test and launch operations) will consist in environmental testing.
This will verify if the spacecraft is capable of withstanding unfavorable conditions, such as extreme hot and cold temperatures, acoustical, separation and deployment shock, vacuum, electromagnetic interference and vibrations.
These harsh environmental factors will also be present throughout the space mission, so NASA researchers want to make sure the spacecraft is sturdy enough to cope with the pressure.
The test phase will finish in May, when the spacecraft will be moved from its current location at Waterton Canyon, Denver, to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
There, it will carry out its final pre-launch steps, before the actual blast-off which will take place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in Florida.
It appears that so far preparations have unfolded smoothly, and that the mission is currently within budget and has been proceeding ahead of schedule.
Therefore, according to Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager, this provides the space agency with extra time and flexibility in case anything goes awry ahead of the scheduled launch.
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