1. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Enters Close Orbit Around Bennu, Breaking Record

    By Lonnie Shekhtman

    December 31, 2018 -

    On Dec. 31, 2018, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft went into orbit around asteroid Bennu for the first time.

    At 2:43 p.m. EST on December 31, while many on Earth prepared to welcome the New Year, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, 70 million miles (110 million kilometers) away, carried out a single, eight-second burn of its thrusters – and broke a space exploration record. The spacecraft entered into orbit around the asteroid Bennu, and made Bennu the smallest object ever to be orbited by a spacecraft.

    “The team continued our long string of successes by executing the orbit-insertion maneuver perfectly,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “With the navigation campaign coming to an end, we are looking forward to the scientific mapping and sample site selection phase of the mission.”

    Lauretta, along with his team, spent the last day of 2018 with his feet planted on Earth, but his mind focused on space. “Entering orbit around Bennu is an amazing accomplishment that our team has been planning for years,” Lauretta said.

    Inching around the asteroid at a snail’s pace, OSIRIS-REx’s first orbit marks a leap for humankind. Never before has a spacecraft from Earth circled so close to such a small space object – one with barely enough gravity to keep a vehicle in a stable orbit.

    Now, the spacecraft will circle Bennu about a mile (1.75 kilometers) from its center, closer than any other spacecraft has come to its celestial object of study. (Previously the closest orbit of a planetary body was in May 2016, when the Rosetta spacecraft orbited about four miles (seven kilometers) from the center of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.) The comfortable distance is necessary to keep the spacecraft locked to Bennu, which has a gravity force only 5-millionths as strong as Earth’s. The spacecraft is scheduled to orbit Bennu through mid-February at a leisurely 62 hours per orbit.

    Now that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is closer to Bennu, physical details about the asteroid will leap into sharper focus, and the spacecraft’s tour of this rubble pile of primordial debris will become increasingly detailed and focused.

    “Our orbit design is highly dependent on Bennu’s physical properties, such as its mass and gravity field, which we didn’t know before we arrived,” said OSIRIS-REx’s flight dynamics system manager Mike Moreau, who is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

    “Up until now, we had to account for a wide variety of possible scenarios in our computer simulations to make sure we could safely navigate the spacecraft so close to Bennu. As the team learned more about the asteroid, we incorporated new information to hone in on the final orbit design,” he said.

    The simulations have played a critical role. The OSIRIS-REx mission, after all, was designed based on complex computer programs that predicted — quite accurately, as it turns out — the properties of Bennu and how the spacecraft’s trajectory would behave. This diligent preparation allowed the team to navigate the vehicle safely to Bennu in December and put some questions to rest (there are, indeed, signs of ancient water preserved in Bennu’s rocks) and to fly over its poles and equator in a preliminary survey that led to some surprises (Bennu has many large boulders).

    Having completed the preliminary survey of Bennu with a flyby of its south pole on December 16, the spacecraft moved to a safe 31 miles (50 kilometers) away from the asteroid to give the navigation team a chance to regroup and prepare for orbit insertion. Next, Lockheed Martin engineers programmed the spacecraft to begin moving back to a position about nine miles (15 kilometers) over Bennu’s north pole to prepare for three burns of its thrusters over the course of 10 days that would place the spacecraft into orbit.

    Even though OSIRIS-REx is in the most stable orbit possible, Bennu’s gravitational pull is so tenuous that keeping the spacecraft safe will require occasional adjustments, said Dan Wibben, OSIRIS-REx maneuver and trajectory design lead at KinetX Aerospace in Simi Valley, California.

    “The gravity of Bennu is so small, forces like solar radiation and thermal pressure from Bennu’s surface become much more relevant and can push the spacecraft around in its orbit much more than if it were orbiting around Earth or Mars, where gravity is by far the most dominant force,” he said.

    The OSIRIS-REx navigation team will use “trim” maneuvers to slightly thrust the spacecraft in one direction or another to correct its orbit and counter these small forces. If the spacecraft drifts away from Bennu, or some other problem forces it into safe mode, it has been programmed to fly away from the asteroid to stay safe from impact.

    “It’s simple logic: always burn toward the Sun if something goes wrong,” said Coralie Adam, OSIRIS-REx lead optical navigation engineer at KinetX. Engineers can navigate the spacecraft back into orbit if it drifts away, Adam said, though that’s unlikely to happen.

    The navigation and spacecraft operations teams are focused on the first orbital phase. Their primary goal is to transition away from star-based navigation, which allowed the team to locate the spacecraft based on pictures of the star formations around it taken by the cameras onboard. Navigators use methods like this since there is no GPS in deep space and we can’t see the spacecraft from Earth-based telescopes. From this point forward, though, the OSIRIS-REx team will rely on landmarks on Bennu’s surface to track OSIRIS-REx, a more precise technique that will ultimately guide them to a sample-collection site clear of boulders and large rocks, said Adam.

    “After conducting a global imaging and mapping campaign during our recent preliminary survey phase, the science team has created 3-D models of Bennu’s terrain that we’re going to begin using for navigation around the asteroid,” she said.

    Another critical objective of this orbital phase, Adam said, is to get a better handle on Bennu’s mass and gravity, features that will influence the planning of the rest of the mission, notably the short touchdown on the surface for sample collection in 2020. In the case of Bennu, scientists can only measure these features by getting OSIRIS-REx very close to the surface to see how its trajectory bends from Bennu’s gravitational pull.

    “The Orbital A phase will help improve our detailed models for Bennu’s gravity field, thermal properties, orientation, and spin rate,” said Wibben. “This, in turn, will allow us to refine our trajectory designs for the even more challenging flight activities we will perform in 2019.”

    The December 31 maneuver to place the spacecraft into orbit about Bennu is the first of many exciting navigation activities planned for the mission. The OSIRIS-REx team will resume science operations in late February. At that point, the spacecraft will perform a series of close flybys of Bennu for several months to take high-resolution images of every square inch of the asteroid to help select a sampling site. During the summer of 2020, the spacecraft will briefly touch the surface of Bennu to retrieve a sample. The OSIRIS-REx mission is scheduled to deliver the sample to Earth in September 2023.

    Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

  2. NASA’s Newly Arrived OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Already Discovers Water on Asteroid

    December 10, 2018 -

    Recently analyzed data from NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission has revealed water locked inside the clays that make up its scientific target, the asteroid Bennu.

    This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on Dec. 2 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24 km).
    Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

    During the mission’s approach phase, between mid-August and early December, the spacecraft traveled 1.4 million miles (2.2 million km) on its journey from Earth to arrive at a location 12 miles (19 km) from Bennu on Dec. 3. During this time, the science team on Earth aimed three of the spacecraft’s instruments towards Bennu and began making the mission’s first scientific observations of the asteroid. OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission.

    Data obtained from the spacecraft’s two spectrometers, the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) and the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES), reveal the presence of molecules that contain oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together, known as “hydroxyls.” The team suspects that these hydroxyl groups exist globally across the asteroid in water-bearing clay minerals, meaning that at some point, Bennu’s rocky material interacted with water. While Bennu itself is too small to have ever hosted liquid water, the finding does indicate that liquid water was present at some time on Bennu’s parent body, a much larger asteroid.

    “The presence of hydrated minerals across the asteroid confirms that Bennu, a remnant from early in the formation of the solar system, is an excellent specimen for the OSIRIS-REx mission to study the composition of primitive volatiles and organics,” said Amy Simon, OVIRS deputy instrument scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “When samples of this material are returned by the mission to Earth in 2023, scientists will receive a treasure trove of new information about the history and evolution of our solar system.”

    Additionally, data obtained from the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) corroborate ground-based telescopic observations of Bennu and confirm the original model developed in 2013 by OSIRIS-REx Science Team Chief Michael Nolan and collaborators. That model closely predicted the asteroid’s actual shape, with Bennu’s diameter, rotation rate, inclination, and overall shape presented almost exactly as projected.

    This preliminary shape model of asteroid Bennu was created from a compilation of images taken by OSIRIS-REx’s PolyCam camera during the spacecraft’s approach toward Bennu during the month of November. This 3D shape model shows features on Bennu as small as six meters.
    Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

    One outlier from the predicted shape model is the size of the large boulder near Bennu’s south pole. The ground-based shape model calculated this boulder to be at least 33 feet (10 meters) in height. Preliminary calculations from OCAMS observations show that the boulder is closer to 164 feet (50 meters) in height, with a width of approximately 180 feet (55 meters).

    Bennu’s surface material is a mix of very rocky, boulder-filled regions and a few relatively smooth regions that lack boulders. However, the quantity of boulders on the surface is higher than expected. The team will make further observations at closer ranges to more accurately assess where a sample can be taken on Bennu to later be returned to Earth.

    “Our initial data show that the team picked the right asteroid as the target of the OSIRIS-REx mission. We have not discovered any insurmountable issues at Bennu so far,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The spacecraft is healthy and the science instruments are working better than required. It is time now for our adventure to begin.”

    The mission currently is performing a preliminary survey of the asteroid, flying the spacecraft in passes over Bennu’s north pole, equator, and south pole at ranges as close as 4.4 miles (7 km) to better determine the asteroid’s mass. The mission’s scientists and engineers must know the mass of the asteroid in order to design the spacecraft’s insertion into orbit because mass affects the asteroid’s gravitational pull on the spacecraft. Knowing Bennu’s mass will also help the science team understand the asteroid’s structure and composition.

    This survey also provides the first opportunity for the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), an instrument contributed by the Canadian Space Agency, to make observations, now that the spacecraft is in proximity to Bennu.

    The spacecraft’s first orbital insertion is scheduled for Dec. 31, and OSIRIS-REx will remain in orbit until mid-February 2019, when it exits to initiate another series of flybys for the next survey phase. During the first orbital phase, the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid at a range of 0.9 miles (1.4 km) to 1.24 miles (2.0 km) from the center of Bennu — setting new records for the smallest body ever orbited by a spacecraft and the closest orbit of a planetary body by any spacecraft.

    Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the agency’s New Frontiers Program for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

  3. NASA’S OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Arrives at Asteroid Bennu

    December 3, 2018 -

    NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft completed its 1.2 billion-mile (2 billion-kilometer) journey to arrive at the asteroid Bennu Monday. The spacecraft executed a maneuver that transitioned it from flying toward Bennu to operating around the asteroid.

    This series of images taken by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft shows Bennu in one full rotation from a distance of around 50 miles (80 km). The spacecraft’s PolyCam camera obtained the 36 2.2-millisecond frames over a period of four hours and 18 minutes. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

    Now, at about 11.8 miles (19 kilometers) from Bennu’s Sun-facing surface, OSIRIS-REx will begin a preliminary survey of the asteroid. The spacecraft will commence flyovers of Bennu’s north pole, equatorial region, and south pole, getting as close as nearly 4 miles (7 kilometers) above Bennu during each flyover.

    The primary science goals of this survey are to refine estimates of Bennu’s mass and spin rate, and to generate a more precise model of its shape. The data will help determine potential sites for later sample collection.

    OSIRIS-REx’s mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth. Asteroids are remnants of the building blocks that formed the planets and enabled life. Those like Bennu contain natural resources, such as water, organics and metals. Future space exploration and economic development may rely on asteroids for these materials.

    “As explorers, we at NASA have never shied away from the most extreme challenges in the solar system in our quest for knowledge,” said Lori Glaze, acting director for NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Now we’re at it again, working with our partners in the U.S. and Canada to accomplish the Herculean task of bringing back to Earth a piece of the early solar system.”

    The mission’s navigation team will use the preliminary survey of Bennu to practice the delicate task of navigating around the asteroid. The spacecraft will enter orbit around Bennu on Dec. 31 –thus making Bennu, which is only about 1,600 feet (492 meters) across — or about the length of five football fields — the smallest object ever orbited by a spacecraft. It’s a critical step in OSIRIS-REx’s years-long quest to collect and eventually deliver at least two ounces (60 grams) of regolith — dirt and rocks — from Bennu to Earth.

    Starting in October, OSIRIS-REx performed a series of braking maneuvers to slow the spacecraft down as it approached Bennu. These maneuvers also targeted a trajectory to set up Monday’s maneuver, which initiates the first north pole flyover and marks the spacecraft’s arrival at Bennu.

    “The OSIRIS-REx team is proud to cross another major milestone off our list — asteroid arrival,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “Initial data from the approach phase show this object to have exceptional scientific value. We can’t wait to start our exploration of Bennu in earnest. We’ve been preparing for this moment for years, and we’re ready.”

    OSIRIS-REx mission marks many firsts in space exploration. It will be the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth and the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era. It’s the first to study a primitive B-type asteroid, which is an asteroid that’s rich in carbon and organic molecules that make up life on Earth. It is also the first mission to study a potentially hazardous asteroid and try to determine the factors that alter their courses to bring them close to Earth.

    “During our approach toward Bennu, we have taken observations at much higher resolution than were available from Earth,” said Rich Burns, the project manager of OSIRIS-REx at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “These observations have revealed an asteroid that is both consistent with our expectations from ground-based measurements and an exceptionally interesting small world. Now we embark on gaining experience flying our spacecraft about such a small body.”

    When OSIRIS-REx begins to orbit Bennu at the end of this month, it will come close to approximately three quarters of a mile (1.25 kilometers) to its surface. In February 2019, the spacecraft begins efforts to globally map Bennu to determine the best site for sample collection. After the collection site is selected, the spacecraft will briefly touch the surface of Bennu to retrieve a sample. OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to return the sample to Earth in September 2023.

    Goddard provides overall mission management, systems engineering and the safety and mission assurance for OSIRIS-REx. Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona, Tucson, is the principal investigator, and the University of Arizona also leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built the spacecraft and is providing flight operations. Goddard and KinetX Aerospace are responsible for navigating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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