1. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft Heads for Earth with Asteroid Sample

    May 12, 2021 -

    After nearly five years in space, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft is on its way back to Earth with an abundance of rocks and dust from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu.

    This illustration shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft departing asteroid Bennu to begin its two-year journey back to Earth. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

    On Monday, May 10, at 4:23 p.m. EDT the spacecraft fired its main engines full throttle for seven minutes – its most significant maneuver since it arrived at Bennu in 2018. This burn thrust the spacecraft away from the asteroid at 600 miles per hour (nearly 1,000 kilometers per hour), setting it on a 2.5-year cruise towards Earth.

    After releasing the sample capsule, OSIRIS-REx will have completed its primary mission. It will fire its engines to fly by Earth safely, putting it on a trajectory to circle the sun inside of Venus’ orbit.

    After orbiting the Sun twice, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is due to reach Earth Sept. 24, 2023. Upon return, the capsule containing pieces of Bennu will separate from the rest of the spacecraft and enter Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule will parachute to the Utah Test and Training Range in Utah’s West Desert, where scientists will be waiting to retrieve it.

    “OSIRIS-REx’s many accomplishments demonstrated the daring and innovate way in which exploration unfolds in real time,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters. “The team rose to the challenge, and now we have a primordial piece of our solar system headed back to Earth where many generations of researchers can unlock its secrets.”

    To realize the mission’s multi-year plan, a dozen navigation engineers made calculations and wrote computer code to instruct the spacecraft when and how to push itself away from Bennu. After departing from Bennu, getting the sample to Earth safely is the team’s next critical goal. This includes planning future maneuvers to keep the spacecraft on course throughout its journey.

    “Our whole mindset has been, ‘Where are we in space relative to Bennu?’” said Mike Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Now our mindset has shifted to ‘Where is the spacecraft in relation to Earth?’”

    The navigation cameras that helped orient the spacecraft in relation to Bennu were turned off April 9, after snapping their last images of the asteroid. With Bennu in the rearview mirror, engineers are using NASA’s Deep Space Network of global spacecraft communications facilities to steer the OSIRIS-REx by sending it radio signals. By measuring the frequency of the waves returned from the spacecraft transponder, engineers can tell how fast OSIRIS-REx is moving. Engineers measure how long it takes for radio signals to get from the spacecraft back to Earth in order to determine its location.

    Exceeding Mission Expectations

    The May 10 departure date was precisely timed based on the alignment of Bennu with Earth. The goal of the return maneuver is to get the spacecraft within about 6,000 miles  (approximately 10,000 kilometers) of Earth in September 2023. Although OSIRIS-REx still has plenty of fuel remaining, the team is trying to preserve as much as possible for a potential extended mission to another asteroid after returning the sample capsule to Earth. The team will investigate the feasibility of such a mission this summer.

    The spacecraft’s course will be determined mainly by the Sun’s gravity, but engineers will need to occasionally make small course adjustments via engine burns.

    “We need to do regular corrections to bring the trajectory increasingly closer to Earth’s atmosphere for the sample release, and to account for small errors that might have accumulated since the last burn,” said Peter Antreasian, OSIRIS-REx navigation lead at KinetX Aerospace, which is based in Simi Valley, California.

    The team will perform course adjustments a few weeks prior to Earth re-entry in order to precisely target the location and angle for the sample capsule’s release into Earth’s atmosphere. Coming in too low could cause the capsule to bounce out of the atmosphere like a pebble skipping off a lake; too high and the capsule could burn up due to friction and heat from the atmosphere. If OSIRIS-REx fails to release the capsule, the team has a backup plan to divert it away from Earth and try again in 2025.

    “There’s a lot of emotion within the team about departure,” Moreau said. “I think everyone has a great sense of accomplishment, because we faced all these daunting tasks and were able to accomplish all the objectives thrown at us. But there’s also some nostalgia and disappointment that this part of the mission is coming to an end.”

    OSIRIS-REx exceeded many expectations. Most recently, in the midst of a global pandemic, the team flawlessly executed the most mission’s critical operation, collecting more than 2 ounces (60 grams) of soil from Bennu’s surface.

    Leading up to sample collection, a number of surprises kept the team on its toes. For example, a week after the spacecraft entered its first orbit around Bennu, on Dec. 31, 2018, the team realized that the asteroid was releasing small pieces of rock into space.

    “We had to scramble to verify that the small particles being ejected from the surface did not present a hazard to the spacecraft,” Moreau said.

    Upon arrival at the asteroid, team members also were astonished to find that Bennu is littered with boulders.

    “We really had this idea that we were arriving on an asteroid with open real estate,” said Heather Enos, OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator, based at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “The reality was a big shocker.”

    To overcome the extreme and unexpected ruggedness of Bennu’s surface, engineers had to quickly develop a more accurate navigation technique to target smaller-than-expected sites for sample collection.

    The OSIRIS-REx mission was instrumental in both confirming and refuting several scientific findings. Among those confirmed was a technique that used observations from Earth to predict that the minerals on the asteroid would be carbon-rich and show signs of ancient water. One finding that proved unsuccessful was that Bennu would have a smooth surface, which scientists predicted by measuring how much heat radiated off its surface.

    Scientists will use the information gleaned from Bennu to refine theoretical models and improve future predictions.

    “This mission emphasizes why we have to do science and exploration in multiple ways – both from Earth and from up-close in space – because assumptions and models are just that,” Enos said.

    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. The university leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, 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, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate Washington.

    For more information about OSIRIS-REx, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/osiris-rex


    Alana Johnson / Karen Fox
    NASA Headquarters, Washington
    202-672-4780 / 202-358-0668
    alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov / karen.c.fox@nasa.gov

    Rani Gran
    Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

  2. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx MOMs Help Asteroid Mission Thrive

    May 7, 2021 -

    Kids depend on their parents and guardians for care, support, and guidance—and their importance in the lives of children is often celebrated with designated days, like Mother’s Day on Sunday May 9th; NASA missions are no different and have MOMs of their own. MOM is NASA speak for Mission Operation Managers. A NASA MOM manages all the activities associated with communicating with the spacecraft and keeping it safe and healthy.

    Most space missions have at least one MOM on their team. However, OSIRIS-REx (NASA Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer), NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission, needed three. “It’s not easy to maneuver a spacecraft near an asteroid and to orbit it safely,” said Andrew Calloway, the OSIRIS-REx Mission Operations Manager (MOM) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “The nature and the complexity of this mission calls us to have more people.”

    Devin Poland, NASA OSIRIS-REx MOM notes: My mother is a strong, hard working woman who always saw the best in us. She worked tirelessly to inspire my brother, sister and myself to be kind, generous and to communicate in an effective manner. She has been the glue that binds us for as long as I can remember. As a MOM it is necessary to plan future activities, work to resolve conflicts effectively and be someone the different mission elements can rely on to bring the mission together. Working to lead from within, to inspire the team in the same way my mother worked to inspire me and my siblings, is a critical aspect of being a MOM.
    Credit: Courtesy of D. Poland

    OSIRIS-REx became the first-ever NASA mission to travel to an asteroid and collect a sample for study back on Earth. OSIRIS-REx broke records for the closest-ever orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft. After two years orbiting asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-REx collected its sample in October 2020 and is preparing to begin the journey home.

    Andrew Calloway, Nayi Castro, and Devin Poland make up NASA Goddard’s OSIRIS-REx three-MOM team. They work closely with all elements of the project nationwide to make sure the spacecraft remains safe and is thriving as it conducts its science observations of asteroid Bennu.

    Based in Maryland, Arizona, Colorado, and California, OSIRIS-REx team members generate multiple weekly products for the spacecraft to operate and maneuver precisely around Bennu. The widely distributed team was a challenge for the MOMs, and became particularly difficult during COVID 19.

    The three OSIRIS-REx MOMS were essential to cover the “late updates” performed several times per week. The process provides the spacecraft with the most up-to-date navigation and trajectory information, essential for the precision flying and science observations close to the asteroid. It is a quick-turnaround, orchestrated sequence of events performed over 24 hours to compute new command parameters and get them uplinked to the spacecraft.

    “We touch all four teams; navigation, flight dynamics, spacecraft operations and science teams within 24 hours,” Poland said. “Then the flight team uplinked those products to the spacecraft, only hours before the spacecraft does the maneuver.”

    Andrew Calloway, NASA OSIRIS-REx MOM notes: My mom Iris was an amazing woman who inspired and supported me every step of the way on my life’s journey, from long division homework in grade school to my college graduation and beyond. Iris lost her battle with cancer in 2019, but her legacy lives on in me and in my own children as we dare to explore the solar system and learn about the universe around us. As a MOM and a dad, I see humorous similarities between the two. Spacecraft are dependent on us in their first year as we bond. They tend to throw tantrums in their next couple of years, but we love them anyway. We try to nurture them, keep them healthy and safe, teach them right from wrong, and they can be quite temperamental when they reach their teens. The rewards far outweigh the challenges though, and we miss them dearly when they stop calling us. Credit: Courtesy of A. Calloway

    The updates spanned second and third shifts along with many weekends. “Late updates were a big stressor for the entire operations team, because there were so many of them performed over two plus years of proximity operations at Bennu,” said Michael Moreau, OSIRIS-REx deputy project manager at Goddard. “The three MOMs were an essential part of the coordination that was necessary for this process to work.”

    The mission completed ‘107’ late updates and hundreds more navigation late updates during its operations at Bennu.

    The MOMs have developed a close working relationship with each other and the team members around the country. “Each manager brings a different strength and diverse perspective and background to the project,” Calloway said. “This was crucial for solving some of the most complex problems on the mission.”

    Both Calloway and Castro supported mid- and long-term planning for the mission. Poland took care of the day-to-day flight operations focusing on technical requirements.

    Calloway joined NASA Goddard’s OSIRIS-REx team five months prior to launch in April 2016, on loan from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in neighboring Laurel, Maryland, under an inter-agency agreement. Calloway was a MOM on NASA’s Mercury MESSENGER mission for eight years and a core team member of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.

    Calloway’s experience was a complementary asset to OSIRIS-REx since Castro and Poland were first-time MOMs on the project. Poland has worked at Goddard for 10 years on various flight projects. He supports OSIRIS-REx’s day-to-day flight operations reviewing the multiple products generated by OSIRIS-REx teams.

    Nayi Castro, NASA OSIRIS-REx MOM notes: My mother was my first role model. She means more to me than words can express. She taught me to be grateful and to strive for kindness in all that I do. She taught me early on how to read and to pursue my aspirations. I admire her greatly and am forever thankful for her unwavering love, support, and friendship. As a MOM, I experienced firsthand a lot of the development of ideas from infancy to execution. This team has further taught me how to work through difficult decisions and bolster resilience. Credit: Courtesy of N. Castro

    Castro joined the team in 2018 as the spacecraft was approaching asteroid Bennu. She has worked on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft and also works with the Deep Space Network (DSN), scheduling time to upload and download data and monitor critical events. OSIRIS-REx shares the network with other missions. It was difficult to negotiating with different missions to get OSIRIS-REx enough time on the network for the late updates.

    At times, emergencies with the DSN tested the MOMs’ skills, but it also illustrated why OSIRIS-REx needs three MOMs. A facility of the Deep Space Network near Madrid had a network outage that stopped a late update. The mission team could not complete the first step: downloading data from the spacecraft. DSN time was ticking away, reducing their communication time with the spacecraft.

    The team did not want to lose their opportunity for a critical update and the subsequent observations. If they did, it would delay the next flyover and ultimately delay the asteroid sample collection maneuver. The team found a way to condense the 24-hour ‘late update’ into 4 hours with all hands-on deck. The team named this update the “super late update”.

    The mission team conducted the process successfully, allowing OSIRIS-REx to complete that important flyover of a potential sample site.

    As OSIRIS-REx’s time at Bennu comes to an end so does the need for a three-MOM team. The MOMs have completed the most challenging phases of the mission with the exception of return to Earth in 2023. The final flyby of Bennu occurred on April 7, 2021.

    Following the successful sample collection, Calloway has returned to the Applied Physics Laboratory after five years on the team. Castro was promoted to OSIRIS-REx lead MOM and oversaw the mission’s last flyover of Bennu. Poland continues to provide technical support to OSIRIS-REx and has transitioned to be the MOM for another NASA asteroid mission, named Lucy. NASA plans to launch Lucy in September 2021.

    Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.

    By Rani Gran
    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

    Last Updated: May 7, 2021

    Editor: Lynn Jenner


  3. WATCH: OSIRIS-REx will Begin Return to Earth

    May 7, 2021 -

    NASA invites the public and the media to watch its first asteroid sample return mission begin a two-year cruise home at 4 p.m. EDT Monday, May 10, on NASA Televisionthe NASA app, and the agency’s website. The public can follow along on the NASA Solar System InstagramTwitter, and Facebook accounts using #ToBennuAndBack, and ask questions about the mission by commenting on an Instagram story between 12 p.m. EDT, May 10 and 12 p.m. EDT, May 11. Answers will post to NASA Solar System’s Instagram stories on May 11.

    This illustration shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft departing asteroid Bennu to begin its two-year journey back to Earth. Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

    Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) is the first NASA mission to visit a near-Earth asteroid, survey the surface, and collect a sample to deliver to Earth. During the broadcast, scientists will reveal new imagery from the mission’s final flyover of the asteroid Bennu and discuss the tense moments from the sample grab in October 2020. The broadcast also will cover how the team engineered its way out of challenges that threatened its mission.

    At approximately 4:16 p.m. EDT, the OSIRIS-REx control room located at Lockheed Martin, in Littleton, Colorado, will receive a confirmation that the spacecraft fired its main thrusters to push away from asteroid Bennu’s orbit, approximately 16 minutes after it happened. After 7 minutes of firing its thrusters, OSIRIS-REx will officially start its long journey home with more than 2.1 ounces (60 grams) of asteroid material.

    The OSIRIS-REx departure sequence is the mission’s most significant maneuver since it arrived at Bennu in 2018. The spacecraft’s thrusters must change its velocity by 595 miles per hour (958 kilometers per hour) for OSIRIS-REx’s path to intersect Earth and achieve a successful sample return at the Utah Test and Training Range on Sept. 24, 2023.

    There is no straight path back to Earth. Like a quarterback throwing a long pass to where a receiver will be in the future, OSIRIS-REx is traveling to where the Earth will be. The spacecraft will circle the Sun twice, covering 1.4 billion miles (2.3 billion kilometers) over to catch up with Earth.

    OSIRIS-REx made history many times during its two and half years of operations on the asteroid, including breaking its own record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft. Bennu is the smallest celestial object ever orbited by a human-built spacecraft.

    OSIRIS-REx will bring back the largest sample collected by a NASA mission since the Apollo astronauts returned with Moon rocks. Scientists plan to analyze the sample to learn about the formation of our solar system and the development of Earth as a habitable planet.

    Once recovered, the capsule will be transported to the curation facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the sample will be removed for distribution to laboratories worldwide. NASA will set aside 75% of the samples for future generations to study with technologies not yet created.

    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. The University of Arizona leads the science team and the mission’s science observation planning and data processing. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, 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, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate Washington.

    For more information on OSIRIS-REx, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/osiris-rex

    Karen Fox / Alana Johnson
    Headquarters, Washington
    301-286-6284 / 202-358-1501
    karen.c.fox@nasa.gov / alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov

    Rani Gran
    Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.