The first U.S. mission to return a sample from an asteroid is readying itself to take on the complex operations necessary for its journey in space. NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission, led by the University of Arizona, passed a key milestone last month by completing a Mission Operations Review (MOR). The MOR demonstrated the team’s progress in developing the operational processes needed to return a sample from a primitive asteroid named Bennu. Spacecraft operations will be conducted at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company campus in Littleton, Colorado, with science operations for the mission being performed on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson.
The MOR, administered by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, focused specifically on OSIRIS-REx’s operational readiness and its progress to launch. The panel of experts assessed the mission’s approach to data processing and analysis, commanding and planning of the spacecraft and instruments, navigation, and the verification and validation plans required before the spacecraft takes flight.
“The MOR provided each of the OSIRIS-REx team members the opportunity to demonstrate how they will operate together after launch to accomplish the work of this mission,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona. “So many aspects of our mission have never been attempted before, and this review showcased the innovative approach to finding solutions that the entire OSIRIS-REx operations team brings to the mission.”
After launch in September 2016, the spacecraft will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth for study. The mission will help scientists investigate the composition of the very early solar system and the source of organic materials and water that made their way to Earth, and it will improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact our planet.
At the mission’s Science Processing and Operations Center (SPOC), located at the University of Arizona, the OSIRIS-REx science and engineering teams are preparing to process the observations that will be transmitted back to Earth prior to retrieving a sample from the asteroid. SPOC personnel will author commands for the scientific instruments and analyze the data received from the spacecraft. These data will provide important answers to questions about Bennu’s composition, topography and temperature — all key to selecting a safe sampling site. At the MOR, OSIRIS-REx demonstrated that the mission has a viable strategy for smooth interactions between the spacecraft, SPOC and ground and flight systems.
“This was the first of a number of operations-related reviews where the team will get to demonstrate its increasing maturity as we march toward launch next September, and they did an excellent job.” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at Goddard.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, provides overall mission management, systems engineering and safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta is the mission’s principal investigator at the University of Arizona. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver is building the spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages New Frontiers for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.