Scientists, engineers and other employees of Lockheed Martin Space, NASA and the University of Arizona cheered and did coronavirus-era elbow bumps Tuesday when a spacecraft collecting the first-ever sample from an asteroid successfully carried out the maneuver.
The mission is part of NASA’s ongoing effort to understand more about how the solar system was formed, how life began and what resources might be available for longer trips in space.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, designed and built by Lockheed Martin at its Waterton campus in Jefferson County, will get ready for its journey back to Earth with an arrival date of September 2023.
“This could not have gone any better. This spacecraft is amazing and everything we ask of it, it does. Everything we ask of this team, it does just perfectly,” said Beth Buck, the program manager for Lockheed Martin.
The collection of regolith, or dirt-like material on the surface, is the culmination of a trek that started in September 2016. The OSIRIS-REx, or the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, was launched by Centennial-based United Launch Alliance from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It took the spacecraft two years to reach the asteroid, which is 200 million miles from Earth.
In 2019, the craft completed a global survey of the asteroid, named Bennu, mapping its surface, geology and other features and preparing for the maneuver to collect the sample. The spacecraft had to get in sync with the asteroid, which orbits the sun at 61,300 mph. As it approached the surface of the asteroid, which is about 0.31 of a mile in diameter, the craft had to match Bennu’s rotation.
To gather the sample, OSIRIS-REx played TAG. Lockheed Martin built what it named Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM, a kind of reverse vacuum to extract the material. A robotic arm extends and the device blows compressed nitrogen gas to stir up the dirt and collect a couple of ounces in a ring-shaped canister.
The craft didn’t land on the surface and had only a few seconds to gather the material because of the challenges of operating in low gravity. Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Dani Hauf said the team members should know by Saturday if enough of the regolith was collected.
If more samples are needed, the plan is to try again in January.
Beau Bierhaus helped design, engineer and test TAGSAM. He became the lead scientist when Jim Harris, the original lead designer, retired. He has worked on the program since 2004, after NASA approved the company’s proposal.
“I have a hard time articulating how exciting it is,” Bierhaus said in the mission support area at Lockheed Martin a couple of hours before the craft descended to the surface. “I guess the best way that I can try to put into words what I’m feeling is that I have spent 16 years of my life building up to this moment.”
Many people have invested their “time and energy and late nights and weekends” to getting to this point, Bierhaus said.
“If you think about a sports team, they spend a season getting to the Super Bowl or something, and we have spent 16 years getting to this point, and it all happens in a span of just a few seconds,” he added.
Lockheed Martin built the OSIRIS-REx by drawing on several of its previous crafts and incorporating new technology. It has instruments that were used to measure and map the asteroid, including cameras, infrared spectrometers and LIDAR, which uses lasers to measure distances and generate three-dimensional information.
Once the craft started transmitting images from the asteroid, it became clear that it was much rockier than scientists had anticipated. They gave the name Mount Doom to one massive boulder that’s about two stories tall.
Ryan Olds, Lockheed Martin’s manager of guidance, navigation and controls for the program, said the team developed a new technology called natural feature tracking specifically for the mission. He compared the process to a kind of facial recognition technology for tracking the asteroid’s landscape, helping the craft navigate to the sample site by checking for landmarks that were mapped.
The spacecraft’s dimensions are 20.25 feet long, 8 feet wide and 10.33 feet tall. The TAGSAM is 11 feet long.
Trevor Perkins, a systems engineer, joined the OSIRIS-REx team about two years ago, when the spacecraft had reached the asteroid. He said the team had to redesign the navigation process, requiring changes to the flight software and other systems.
Exploring and understanding more about the solar system is important, Perkins said. “It answers kind of every question that’s embedded in us as a human species. Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe?”
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