The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is on pins and needles awaiting the launch of the OSIRIS-REx robotic explorer, bound for the 500-metre wide asteroid Bennu and kitted up with a Canadian-made laser altimeter set to provide a finely detailed mapping of the asteroid, which, by the way, is on target to hit the Earth sometime near the end of the 22nd century.
“OLA will measure the asteroid’s topography and shape in a detail that is unprecedented compared to other asteroid missions,” says Michael Daly, OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter instrument scientist at York University in Toronto. “This 3-D shape will be the foundational dataset for the other instruments.”
The mission is the CSA’s moment in the sun, and it plans to celebrate the hopefully successful launch on September 8 with an event at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on September 13. The team behind OSIRIS-REx will be on hand to discuss the mission and Canada’s role in it.
“I grew up playing video games about shooting lasers at asteroids and now it’s my job to shoot lasers at asteroids,” says Tim Haltigin, Senior Mission Scientist with the Canadian Space Agency, in a NASA statement. “It never stops amazing me.”
Once OSIRIS-REx – its full name is Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer -takes off on its seven-year mission to Bennu, it won’t actually meet up with the giant space rock until August 2018, when it will then take two years in orbit, collecting topographic data via the OLA in preparation for the explorer’s “contact” with Bennu in order to collect a piece of the rock to bring back to Earth. The plan is to blast the surface of Bennu from close range with nitrogen gas and collect any materials that get blown out, with hopes of getting at least two ounces (60 grams) of asteroid to take home for analysis.
“We don’t technically land on Bennu, but we make contact with it for about 5 seconds,” Jeff Grossman, OSIRIS-REx program scientist at NASA. The collected materials will be of two-fold value – Bennu is known to be a carbonaceous asteroid, meaning that it contains some of the organic elements necessary for life, present long before the Earth was formed, and thus it will potentially provide details about the early history of the Solar System. But also, because of Bennu’s status as a potentially hazardous asteroid (projections have a series of potential impact dates between 2175 and 2196) it’s a matter of course that learning more about Bennu’s composition will be crucial to any future missions aimed at preventing a collision with Earth.
Canada’s contribution to the mission will most certainly reap future benefits for Canada’s space program, says Haltigin. “It allows Canadian scientists to have access to astro-materials for the very first time,” says Haltigin. “These are the first samples on a sample return mission that Canada is going to own a portion of, and [the mission] really highlights the expertise of Canadian scientists and engineers.”
Below: OSIRIS-REx Tech: Mapping an Asteroid with Lasers