Hey, space fans! Some awesome things are afoot in the world of asteroid research.
OSIRIS-REx's name is an acronym that stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, which is actually a list of the mission's objectives. "But what does it all MEAN, Melanie?" you might ask? Well,
- Origins: This mission is actually going to collect a pristine asteroid sample from its "origin" and return it to Earth, where scientists can study the carbon-rich material and learn more about our small, wandering neighbors in space.
- Spectral Interpretation: This is a fancy way of saying that the mission will provide direct observations of the asteroid for folks to view and study from Earth. Several instruments are on board the craft to map the asteroid.
- Resource Identification: The science payload of OSIRIS-REx has several instruments on board that will scan the asteroid using X-ray, visible, and infrared light to see what elements are present on the asteroid.
- Security: Part of the mission is to study the Yarkovsky effect, the effects of sunlight on the orbit of a small asteroid. When sunlight hits a small asteroid, it gets a slight push generated when it absorbs that light ans re-emits that energy as heat. Why is it called security? Well, because by studying these effects we can both predict the changes in asteroid orbits (and can tell when an asteroid is going to come a bit too close to home) and we could perhaps figure out a way to change an asteroid's orbit if it IS coming too close to Earth using the same effect.
- Regolith Explorer: The regolith is the loose outer layer of material on the surface of the asteroid. The mission is going to document this material at a much smaller scale than we have ever done before.
What's so special about asteroids, though? Why should we care about glorified chunks of rock floating through space?
Think about it. What is the Earth, really, other than a glorified chunk of rock? Asteroids may hold the key to understanding the development of life and how planets and the solar system formed. They are a snapshot of primordial planets. Bodies such as Bennu contain water, organic material, and natural resources. They may contain things we will need some day to survive, and they also provide interesting opportunities for the future of space travel and exploration.
OSIRIS-REx's journey will look something like this: After its launch from Florida, the spacecraft will orbit the sun for a year. Then it will use Earth's gravitational field to help push it on the way to Bennu. In August of 2018, it will begin its approach to Bennu, and once it uses its array of small rocket thrusters to match the speed of Bennu, it will rendezvous and start its survey. It will take about a year to finish its survey of the asteroid, and then in March of 2021, it will depart the asteroid to start its return voyage, arriving home in September 2023.
For those of you who would like to watch this historical launch, you can see it happen live, with coverage starting on NASA TV at 3:30 PM EDT, with a launch time of 7:05 PM EDT. You can also watch events unfold on the OSIRIS-REx blog at NASA.
Melanie R. Meadors is an author of science fiction and fantasy, blogger at The Once and Future Podcast, and a professional author publicist. She is also the editor of Hath No Fury, an anthology currently on Kickstarter. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.