On the evening of September 8, 2016, weather permitting – and all systems go – the OSIRIS-REx mission will be launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida into outer space to play a cosmic game of tag with an asteroid named Bennu to collect a minimum of 60 grams (2 ounces) and up to 4.4 pounds of material, and return a capsule filled with what Carl Sagan might have referred to as “star stuff,” to the Utah desert in 2023. The samples will then be delivered to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and some sent to JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency. Some of the samples will be studied in the first two years after return, but most will be preserved for study by future generations. So, in a mere nine years, this unique mission will help scientists in their efforts to solve more mysteries of the universe – and likely lead to more questions as well.
Bennu is a Near Earth Object (NEO) with a 500 meter diameter, formed about 4.5 billion years ago. OSIRIS-REx is an SUV sized spacecraft. Bennu was selected to be visited because it is accessible and has a convenient orbit for a sample return mission to Earth, is a useful size for study, and is also rich in carbon, so there is a greater chance for the discovery of organic materials and water-rich materials, such as clay. In other words, the building blocks of life on Earth may be discovered on Bennu!
So, what has this to do with herons, a favorite bird of Gene Stratton-Porter? Several years ago a contest was held to name the asteroid, formerly known as 1999R236. Among the 8000 or so entries was one from a third grader who felt the spacecraft resembled a heron in flight, when its long collection arm is outstretched. Bennu was an ancient Egyptian diety connected with the sun, creation, and rebirth – and often depicted as a heron, so the student felt the ancient name appropriate. The mission itself, OSIRIS- REx includes the name of another Eqyptian figure, Osiris, said to have brought knowledge of agriculture – and hence life, to the Nile Delta region. Just in case you're wondering, the acronym OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer! OSIRIS-REx carries an impressive suite of scientific instruments – cameras, spectrometers, and an altimeter – to collect images, study the chemical composition of Bennu, and search for pre- biotic and biotic material. The mission is part of NASA's New Frontiers Initiative, which includes the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Juno mission to Jupiter.
Objectives of OSIRIS-REx include understanding the formation and working of our solar system, and also a better understanding of Near Earth Objects and their hazards. The Yarkovsky Effect – in which solar energy is absorbed and released by asteroids, effecting their orbits – will also be studied as part of the mission. Scientists estimate there's a 1 in 2700 chance of Bennu impacting Earth...in the 22 nd century. So don't worry! But consider following the mission!
For more information, go to asteroidmission.org. You can watch the launch on NASA TV at NASA.gov! For more information on the Great Blue Heron of Indiana, check out Alexandra Forsythe's 7/18/2016 posting on this blog.
Adrienne Provenzano is a member of the Friends of the Limberlost and the Indiana Astronomical Society and is also a NASA Solar System Ambassador - a program of NASA JPL-CalTech.