Asteroid Anglers: CU Scientists Prep Historic Space Dust Scoop

BOULDER, CO — From the window of a passenger jet, we can observe the Earth at a height of roughly 6 miles. On Monday, a NASA spacecraft made that distance look downright standoffish as it brushed within a historic 4.5 miles of the distant Bennu asteroid —and multiple scientists with University of Colorado-Boulder connections were there to help man the controls.

By 2020, the team behind the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft, known to its fans as OSIRIS-REx, hope to reach out and touch the astral rock.

“After two years of travel — and more than a decade of planning and work by my team — I’m here,” announced the rather-chatty OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to its 63,000 Twitter followers Monday morning. “But Arrival is just the beginning…”

Dan Scheeres is a distinguished professor of aerospace engineering at CU-Boulder, and he will be critical in helping OSIRIS-REx to accomplish its next milestone: using the spacecraft’s retractable arm to scoop up a sample of dirt, called a regolith, from Bennu’s surface and return with it to Earth. If successful, this will be the first time NASA has accomplished such a feat.

Scheeres and his team are working to calculate Bennu’s mass. According to CU Boulder Today, that will help scientists estimate how it moves and rotates, what it is made of — oh, and how likely it is that the asteroid will crash into Earth sometime between 2175 and 2199.

“Once we get the first flyby and we nail the first mass, that’s going to be hugely important,” Scheeres told CU Boulder Today. “Right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Soon, those uncertainties are going to collapse down to show us what this body is like.”

Scheeres is far from the only CU connection to the OSIRIS-REx mission. Twenty-eight members of the team of scientists who run the mission’s operations out of the Lockheed Martin are CU-Boulder graduates, more than half of the total group.

According to CU doctoral alum Jason Leonard, at 500 meters across — just a bit taller than the Empire State Building — Bennu is the smallest body that has ever been orbited in space. Its diminutive size means that it has weak gravitational forces, which makes Leonard and his team’s mission more challenging.

Their success thus far is both impressive and critical. The information the OSIRIS-REx team gathers about Bennu will help them to understand how the asteroid’s orbit might evolve over time, and just how close to earth the space rock might someday come.

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In a photo provided by NASA, The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft lifts off on from Space Launch Complex 41 on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. OSIRIS-REx will be the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. The asteroid, Bennu, may hold clues to the origin of the solar system and the source of water and organic molecules found on Earth. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)

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