1. OSIRIS-REx Begins its Countdown to TAG

    September 24, 2020 -

    A historic moment is on the horizon for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. In just a few weeks, the robotic OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will descend to asteroid Bennu’s boulder-strewn surface, touch down for a few seconds and collect a sample of the asteroid’s rocks and dust – marking the first time NASA has grabbed pieces of an asteroid, which will be returned to Earth for study.

    Artist’s conception of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from the asteroid Bennu. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

    On Oct. 20, the mission will perform the first attempt of its Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection event. This series of maneuvers will bring the spacecraft down to site Nightingale, a rocky area 52 ft (16 m) in diameter in Bennu’s northern hemisphere, where the spacecraft’s robotic sampling arm will attempt to collect a sample. Site Nightingale was selected as the mission’s primary sample site because it holds the greatest amount of unobstructed fine-grained material, but the region is surrounded by building-sized boulders. During the sampling event, the spacecraft, which is the size of a large van, will attempt to touch down in an area that is only the size of a few parking spaces, and just a few steps away from some of these large boulders.

    During the 4.5-hour sample collection event, the spacecraft will perform three separate maneuvers to reach the asteroid’s surface. The descent sequence begins with OSIRIS-REx firing its thrusters for an orbit departure maneuver to leave its safe-home orbit approximately 2,500 feet (770 meters) from Bennu’s surface. After traveling four hours on this downward trajectory, the spacecraft performs the “Checkpoint” maneuver at an approximate altitude of 410 ft (125 m). This thruster burn adjusts OSIRIS-REx’s position and speed to descend steeply toward the surface. About 11 minutes later, the spacecraft performs the “Matchpoint” burn at an approximate altitude of 177 ft (54 m), slowing its descent and targeting a path to match the asteroid’s rotation at the time of contact. The spacecraft then descends to the surface, touches down for less than sixteen seconds and fires one of its three pressurized nitrogen bottles. The gas agitates and lifts Bennu’s surface material, which is then caught in the spacecraft’s collector head. After this brief touch, OSIRIS-REx fires its thrusters to back away from Bennu’s surface and navigates to a safe distance from the asteroid.

    After the orbit departure maneuver, the spacecraft undertakes a sequence of reconfigurations to prepare for sampling. First, OSIRIS-REx extends its robotic sampling arm – the Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) – from its folded storage position out to the sample collection position. The spacecraft’s two solar panels then move into a “Y-wing” configuration over the spacecraft’s body, which positions them safely up and away from the asteroid’s surface during touch down. This configuration also places the spacecraft’s center of gravity directly over the TAGSAM collector head, which is the only part of the spacecraft that will contact Bennu’s surface during the sample collection event.

    Because the spacecraft and Bennu are approximately 207 million miles (334 million km) from Earth during TAG, it will take about 18.5 minutes for signals to travel between them. This time lag prevents the live commanding of flight activities from the ground during the TAG event, so the spacecraft is designed to perform the entire sample collection sequence autonomously. Prior to the event’s start, the OSIRIS-REx team will uplink all of the commands to the spacecraft and then send a “GO” command to begin.

    This view of sample site Nightingale on asteroid Bennu is a mosaic of 345 images collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on March 3. The image is overlaid with a graphic of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to illustrate the targeted touchdown spot. The mosaic is rotated so that Bennu’s east is at the top of the image. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

    To autonomously navigate to site Nightingale, OSIRIS-REx uses the Natural Feature Tracking (NFT) navigation system. The spacecraft begins collecting navigation images about 90 minutes after orbit departure. It then compares these real-time images to an onboard image catalog, using identified surface features to make sure that it’s on the right course toward the site. As the spacecraft approaches the surface, OSIRIS-REx updates the Checkpoint and Matchpoint maneuvers based on the NFT’s estimate of the spacecraft’s position and velocity. OSIRIS-REx continues to use the NFT estimates as it descends to the surface after the Matchpoint maneuver to monitor its position and descent rate. The spacecraft will autonomously abort should its trajectory vary outside of predefined limits.

    To ensure that the spacecraft touches down on a safe area that avoids the region’s many boulders, the navigation system is equipped with a hazard map of site Nightingale, which delineates areas within the sample site that could potentially harm the spacecraft. If the spacecraft’s NFT system detects that it is on course to touch one of these hazardous zones, the spacecraft will autonomously wave off its approach once it reaches an altitude of 16 ft (5 m). This keeps the spacecraft safe and allows for a subsequent sample collection attempt at a future date.

    As the spacecraft performs each event in the sample collection sequence, it will send telemetry updates back to the OSIRIS-REx team, albeit at an extremely slow data rate. The team will monitor the telemetry during the excursion and will be able to confirm that the spacecraft has successfully touched down on Bennu’s surface soon after TAG occurs. The images and other science data collected during the event will be downlinked after the spacecraft has backed away from the asteroid and can point its larger antenna back to Earth to transmit at higher communication rates.

    OSIRIS-REx is charged with collecting at least 2 oz. (60 grams) of Bennu’s rocky material to deliver back to Earth – the largest sample return from space since the Apollo program – and the mission developed two methods to verify that this sample collection occurred. On Oct. 22, OSIRIS-REx’s SamCam camera will capture images of the TAGSAM head to see whether it contains Bennu’s surface material. The spacecraft will also perform a spin maneuver on Oct. 24 to determine the mass of collected material. If these measures show successful collection, the decision will be made to place the sample in the Sample Return Capsule (SRC) for return to Earth. If sufficient sample has not been collected from Nightingale, the spacecraft has onboard nitrogen charges for two more attempts. A TAG attempt at the back-up Osprey site would be made no earlier than January 2021.

    The mission team has spent the last several months preparing for the sample collection event while maximizing remote work as part of its COVID-19 response. On the day of TAG, a limited number of team members will monitor the spacecraft from Lockheed Martin Space’s Mission Support Area, taking appropriate safety precautions. Other members of the team will also be at other locations on-site to cover the event, while also observing safety protocols.

    The spacecraft is scheduled to depart Bennu in 2021 and it will deliver the collected sample to Earth on Sep. 24, 2023.

    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, 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 provides 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.

    For graphics from the Sept. 24 media telecon, go to: https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/13724

  2. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx to Asteroid Bennu: “You’ve got a little Vesta on you…”

    September 21, 2020 -

    In an interplanetary faux pas, it appears some pieces of asteroid Vesta ended up on asteroid Bennu, according to observations from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The new result sheds light on the intricate orbital dance of asteroids and on the violent origin of Bennu, which is a “rubble pile” asteroid that coalesced from the fragments of a massive collision.

    We found six boulders ranging in size from 5 to 14 feet (about 1.5 to 4.3 meters) scattered across Bennu’s southern hemisphere and near the equator,” said Daniella DellaGiustina of the Lunar & Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson. “These boulders are much brighter than the rest of Bennu and match material from Vesta.”

    During spring 2019, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft captured these images, which show fragments of asteroid Vesta present on asteroid Bennu’s surface. The bright boulders (circled in the images) are pyroxene-rich material from Vesta. Some bright material appear to be individual rocks (left) while others appear to be clasts within larger boulders (right). Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

    “Our leading hypothesis is that Bennu inherited this material from its parent asteroid after a vestoid (a fragment from Vesta) struck the parent,” said Hannah Kaplan of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Then, when the parent asteroid was catastrophically disrupted, a portion of its debris accumulated under its own gravity into Bennu, including some of the pyroxene from Vesta.”

    DellaGiustina and Kaplan are primary authors of a paper on this research appearing in Nature Astronomy September 21.

    The unusual boulders on Bennu first caught the team’s eye in images from the OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) Camera Suite (OCAMS). They appeared extremely bright, with some almost ten times brighter than their surroundings. They analyzed the light from the boulders using the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS) instrument to get clues to their composition. A spectrometer separates light into its component colors. Since elements and compounds have distinct, signature patterns of bright and dark across a range of colors, they can be identified using a spectrometer. The signature from the boulders was characteristic of the mineral pyroxene, similar to what is seen on Vesta and the vestoids, smaller asteroids that are fragments blasted from Vesta when it sustained significant asteroid impacts. 

    Of course it’s possible that the boulders actually formed on Bennu’s parent asteroid, but the team thinks this is unlikely based on how pyroxene typically forms. The mineral typically forms when rocky material melts at high-temperature. However, most of Bennu is composed of rocks containing water-bearing minerals, so it (and its parent) couldn’t have experienced very high temperatures. Next, the team considered localized heating, perhaps from an impact. An impact needed to melt enough material to create large pyroxene boulders would be so significant that it would have destroyed Bennu’s parent-body. So, the team ruled out these scenarios, and instead considered other pyroxene-rich asteroids that might have implanted this material to Bennu or its parent.

    Observations reveal it’s not unusual for an asteroid to have material from another asteroid splashed across its surface. Examples include dark material on crater walls seen by the Dawn spacecraft at Vesta, a black boulder seen by the Hayabusa spacecraft on Itokawa, and very recently, material from S-type asteroids observed by Hayabusa2 at Ryugu. This indicates many asteroids are participating in a complex orbital dance that sometimes results in cosmic mashups.

    As asteroids move through the solar system, their orbits can be altered in many ways, including the pull of gravity from planets and other objects, meteoroid impacts, and even the slight pressure from sunlight. The new result helps pin down the complex journey Bennu and other asteroids have traced through the solar system.

    Based on its orbit, several studies indicate Bennu was delivered from the inner region of the Main Asteroid Belt via a well-known gravitational pathway that can take objects from the inner Main Belt to near-Earth orbits. There are two inner Main Belt asteroid families (Polana and Eulalia) that look like Bennu: dark and rich in carbon, making them likely candidates for Bennu’s parent. Likewise, the formation of the vestoids is tied to the formation of the Veneneia and Rheasilvia impact basins on Vesta, at roughly about two billion years ago and approximately one billion years ago, respectively.

    “Future studies of asteroid families, as well as the origin of Bennu, must reconcile the presence of Vesta-like material as well as the apparent lack of other asteroid types. We look forward to the returned sample, which hopefully contains pieces of these intriguing rock types,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “This constraint is even more compelling given the finding of S-type material on asteroid Ryugu. This difference shows the value in studying multiple asteroids across the solar system.”

    The spacecraft is going to make its first attempt to sample Bennu in October and return it to Earth in 2023 for detailed analysis. The mission team closely examined four potential sample sites on Bennu to determine their safety and science value before making a final selection in December 2019. DellaGiustina and Kaplan’s team thinks they might find smaller pieces of Vesta in images from these close-up studies.

    The research was funded by the NASA New Frontiers Program. The primary authors acknowledge significant collaboration with the French space agency CNES on this paper. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland 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. The late Michael Drake of the University of Arizona pioneered the study of vestoid meteorites and was the first principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx. 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. NASA is exploring our Solar System and beyond, uncovering worlds, stars, and cosmic mysteries near and far with our powerful fleet of space and ground-based missions.

  3. Where Rocks Come Alive: OSIRIS-REx Observes an Asteroid in Action

    By Daniel Stolte

    September 9, 2020 -

    It’s 5 o’clock somewhere – and while here on Earth, “happy hour” is commonly associated with winding down and the optional cold beverage, that’s when things get going on Bennu, the destination asteroid of the University of Arizona-led OSIRIS-REx mission.

    Using data collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, this animation shows the trajectories of particles after their emission from asteroid Bennu’s surface. The animation emphasizes the four largest particle ejection events detected at Bennu from December 2018 through September 2019. Additional particles, some with lifetimes of several days, that are not related to the ejections are also visible. Credit: M. Brozovic/JPL-Caltech/NASA/University of Arizona

    In a special collection of research papers published Sep. 9 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, the OSIRIS-REx science team reports detailed observations that reveal Bennu is shedding material on a regular basis. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has provided planetary scientists with the opportunity to observe such activity at close range for the first time ever, and Bennu’s active surface underscores an emerging picture in which asteroids are quite dynamic worlds.

    The publications provide the first in-depth look at the nature of Bennu’s particle ejection events, detail the methods used to study these phenomena, and discuss the likely mechanisms at work that cause the asteroid to release pieces of itself into space.

    The first observation of particles popping off the asteroid’s surface was made in January 2019, mere days after the spacecraft arrived at Bennu. This event may have gone completely unnoticed were it not for the keen eye of the mission’s lead astronomer and UArizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory scientist, Carl Hergenrother, one of the lead authors of the collection and its introduction.

    Much like ocean-going explorers in centuries past, the space probe relies on stars to fix its position in space and remain on course during its years-long voyage across space. A specialized navigation camera onboard the spacecraft takes repeat images of background stars. By cross-referencing the constellations the spacecraft “sees” with programmed star charts, course corrections can be made as necessary.

    Hergenrother was poring over these images that the spacecraft had beamed back to Earth when something caught his attention. The images showed the asteroid silhouetted against a black sky dotted with many stars – except there seemed to be too many.

    “I was looking at the star patterns in these images and thought, ‘huh, I don’t remember that star cluster,'” Hergenrother said. “I only noticed it because there were 200 dots of light where there should be about 10 stars. Other than that, it looked to be just a dense part of the sky.”

    A closer inspection and an application of image-processing techniques unearthed the mystery: the “star cluster” was in fact a cloud of tiny particles that had been ejected from the asteroid’s surface. Follow-up observations made by the spacecraft revealed the telltale streaks typical of objects moving across the frame, setting them apart from the background stars that appear stationary due to their enormous distances.

    “We thought that Bennu’s boulder-covered surface was the wild card discovery at the asteroid, but these particle events definitely surprised us,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and professor at LPL. “We’ve spent the last year investigating Bennu’s active surface, and it’s provided us with a remarkable opportunity to expand our knowledge of how active asteroids behave.”

    Since arriving at the asteroid, the team has observed and tracked more than 300 particle ejection events on Bennu. According to the authors, some particles escape into space, others briefly orbit the asteroid, and most fall back onto its surface after being launched. Ejections most often occur during Bennu’s local two-hour afternoon and evening timeframe.

    The spacecraft is equipped with a sophisticated set of electronic eyes – the Touch-and-Go Camera Suite, or TAGCAMS. Although its primary purpose is to assist in spacecraft navigation, TAGCAMS has now been placed into active duty spotting any particles in the vicinity of the asteroid.

    Using software algorithms developed at UArizona’s Catalina Sky Survey, which specializes in discovering and tracking near-Earth asteroids by detecting their motion against background stars, the OSIRIS-REx team found the largest particles erupting from Bennu to be about 6 centimeters (2 inches) in diameter. Due to their small size and low velocities – this is like a shower of tiny pebbles in super-slo-mo – the mission team does not deem the particles a threat to the spacecraft.

    “Space is so empty that even when the asteroid is throwing off hundreds of particles, as we have seen in some events, the chances of one of those hitting the spacecraft is extremely small,” Hergenrother said, “and even if that were to happen, the vast majority of them are not fast or large enough to cause damage.”

    During a number of observation campaigns between January and September 2019 dedicated to detecting and tracking mass ejected from the asteroid, a total of 668 particles were studied, with the vast majority measuring between 0.5 and 1 centimeters (0.2-0.4 inches), and moving at about 20 centimeters (8 inches) per second, about as fast – or slow – as a beetle scurrying across the ground. In one instance, a speedy outlier was clocked at about 3 meters (9.8 feet) per second.

    On average, the authors observed one to two particles kicked up per day, with much of the material falling back onto the asteroid. Add to that the small particle sizes, and the mass loss becomes minimal, Hergenrother explained.

    This view of asteroid Bennu ejecting particles from its surface on January 19 was created by combining two images taken by the NavCam 1 imager onboard NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft: a short exposure image (1.4 ms), which shows the asteroid clearly, and a long exposure image (5 sec), which shows the particles clearly. Other image processing techniques were also applied, such as cropping and adjusting the brightness and contrast of each layer. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin

    “To give you an idea, all of those 200 particles we observed during the first event after arrival would fit on a 4-inch x 4-inch tile,” he said. “The fact that we can even see them is a testament to the capabilities of our cameras.”

    The authors investigated various mechanisms that could cause these phenomena, including released water vapor, impacts by small space rocks known as meteoroids and rocks cracking from thermal stress. The two latter mechanisms were found to be the most likely driving forces, confirming predictions about Bennu’s environment based on ground observations preceding the space mission.

    As Bennu completes one rotation every 4.3 hours, boulders on its surface are exposed to a constant thermo-cycling as they heat during the day and cool during the night. Over time, the rocks crack and break down, and eventually particles may be thrown from the surface. The fact that particle ejections were observed with greater frequency during late afternoon, when the rocks heat up, suggests thermal cracking is a major driver. The timing of the events is also consistent with the timing of meteoroid impacts, indicating that these small impacts could be throwing material from the surface. Either, or both, of these processes could be driving the particle ejections, and because of the asteroid’s microgravity environment, it doesn’t take much energy to launch an object from Bennu’s surface.

    Of the particles the team observed, some had suborbital trajectories, keeping them aloft for a few hours before they settled back down, while others fly off the asteroid to go into their own orbits around the sun.

    In one instance, the team tracked one particle as it circled the asteroid for almost a week. The spacecraft’s cameras even witnessed a ricochet, according to Hergenrother.

    “One particle came down, hit a boulder and went back into orbit,” he said. “If Bennu has this kind of activity, then there is a good chance all asteroids do, and that is really exciting.”

    As Bennu continues to unveil itself, the OSIRIS-REx team continues to discover that this small world is glowingly complex. These findings could serve as a cornerstone for future planetary missions that seek to better characterize and understand how these small bodies behave and evolve.

    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, 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 provides 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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