The high gain antenna and solar arrays were installed on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft prior to it moving to environmental testing.  Credits: Lockheed Martin Corporation

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sampling Probe Completes Instrument Install/Assembly, Enters ‘Test Drive’ Phase

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

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OSIRIS-Rex, the first American spacecraft ever aimed at snatching pristine samples from the surface of an asteroid and returning them to Earth for exquisite analysis by researchers world-wide with the most advanced science instruments has successfully completed its assembly phase and moved into the “test drive” phase – just ten months before blastoff, following installation of all its science instruments at Lockheed Martin Space Systems facilities, near Denver, Colorado.

The launch window for OSIRIS-REx opens next fall on September 3, 2016 on a seven-year journey to asteroid Bennu and back. Bennu is a carbon-rich asteroid. OSIRIS-Rex will eventually return the largest sample from space since the American and Soviet Union’s moon landing missions of the 1970s.

The science payload installation was recently completed with attachment of the vehicles three camera instrument suite of cameras and spectrometers known as OCAMS (OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite), which was was designed and built by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

OCAMS trio of instruments, PolyCam, MapCam and SamCam, will survey and globally map the surface of Bennu up close at a distance ranging from approximately 5 km to 0.7 km.

“PolyCam, MapCam and SamCam will be our mission’s eyes at Bennu,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in a statement.

“OCAMS will provide the imagery we need to complete our mission while the spacecraft is at the asteroid.”

“All in all it was flawless installation, with the three cameras and the control electronics making it on the spacecraft well in advance of when we originally planned these activities. In general, the OSIRIS-REx ATLO (assembly, test and launch operations) flow has gone smoothly,” said Lauretta in a blog update.

The University of Arizona’s camera suite, OCAMS, sits on a test bench that mimics its arrangement on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The three cameras that compose the instrument – MapCam (left), PolyCam and SamCam – are the eyes of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. They will map the asteroid Bennu, help choose a sample site, and ensure that the sample is correctly stowed on the spacecraft.  Credits: University of Arizona/Symeon Platts

The University of Arizona’s camera suite, OCAMS, sits on a test bench that mimics its arrangement on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. The three cameras that compose the instrument – MapCam (left), PolyCam and SamCam – are the eyes of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. They will map the asteroid Bennu, help choose a sample site, and ensure that the sample is correctly stowed on the spacecraft. Credits: University of Arizona/Symeon Platts

For the next five months, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer will undergo a rigorous regime of critical environmental testing to ensure the probe will survive the unforgiving extremes of vacuum, vibration and extreme temperatures it will experience during launch and throughout the life of its planned eight year mission.

The asteroid sampling spacecraft is tracking on budget and ahead of schedule.

“OSIRIS-REx is entering environmental testing on schedule, on budget and with schedule reserves,” said Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“This allows us to have flexibility if any concerns arise during final launch preparations.”

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid and was selected for the sample return mission because it “could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth,” says NASA.

The spacecraft is equipped with a suite of five science instruments to remotely study the 492 meter wide asteroid.

The instruments were all installed as planned on the spacecraft deck over the past few months so they can all be subjected to the environmental testing together with the spacecraft bus.

“This milestone marks the end of the design and assembly stage,” said Lauretta, in a statement.

“We now move on to test the entire flight system over the range of environmental conditions that will be experienced on the journey to Bennu and back. This phase is critical to mission success, and I am confident that we have built the right system for the job.”

The tests will “simulate the harsh environment of space, including acoustical, separation and deployment shock, vibration, and electromagnetic interference. The simulation concludes with a test in which the spacecraft and its instruments are placed in a vacuum chamber and cycled through the extreme hot and cold temperatures it will face during its journey to Bennu,” say NASA officials.

Video caption: Engineers at Lockheed Martin move the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft onto a rotation fixture. This fixture supports the full weight of the spacecraft and acts as a hinge, orienting the spacecraft at a 90 degree angle, which allows engineers to access the top of the spacecraft much more easily. Credits: Lockheed Martin Corporation

The testing is done to uncover any issues lurking prior next September’s planned liftoff.

“This is an exciting time for the program as we now have a completed spacecraft and the team gets to test drive it, in a sense, before we actually fly it to asteroid Bennu,” said Rich Kuhns, OSIRIS-REx program manager at Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

“The environmental test phase is an important time in the mission as it will reveal any issues with the spacecraft and instruments, while here on Earth, before we send it into deep space.”

After the testing is complete by next May, the spacecraft will ship from Lockheed Martin’s Denver facility to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where it will undergo final prelaunch preparations and transport to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth. Credit: NASA/Goddard

Artist concept of OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth.
Credit: NASA/Goddard

OSIRIS-REx is scheduled for launch in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 411 rocket, which includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and one solid rocket motor. Only three Atlas V’s have been launched in this configuration.

“This is an exciting time,” says Lauretta.

The spacecraft will reach Bennu in 2018. OSIRIS-REx will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023 for study by researchers here with all the most sophisticated science instruments available.

Bennu is an unchanged remnant from the collapse of the solar nebula and birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago, little altered over time.

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.

OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orion will launch atop NASA’s new SLS heavy lift booster concurrently under development.

OSIRIS-REx logo

OSIRIS-REx logo

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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5 Responses

  1. Random Sample says:

    Shake and Bake (and Freeze) time, eh? I have great confidence in the people at my alma mater in Tucson. This is a very exciting mission!

  2. Aqua4U says:

    Of course, I’d prefer to see an assembly line turning out dozens or even hundreds of OSIRIS-REx spacecraft… but that would be in a perfect world. Imagine what we’d find if we did that? The metal rich asteroids might prove economically interesting? The water rich asteroids sources of oxygen and fuel?

    Which one(s) could be hollowed out and turned into habitat or space station/dock?

    • Random Sample says:

      I’d suggest Psyche, since it seems to be made primarily of metal. Of course, that would make it harder to hollow out, but it would be more certain to remain airtight, and it would provide building materials.

      • Bo Zo says:

        I still say water is the first resource to utilize in space. It’s comparatively easy to gather, process and use (for fuel, water, air), versus metals, which would require much larger infrastructure and investment.

        Refined water products are worth about $10k per kg – the cost of launching them from earth. (Old figure, maybe that’s changed some.) So a bathtub-full is worth about $10,000,000.

        NASA, ESA and others could use that water NOW – there’s already a market for it. But the ISS couldn’t do much with a bathtub full of pig iron.

        Ah, but some day we will mine & refine rare metals, nudge them towards earth orbit, and fly them gently to the surface on reentry gliders/landers built from asteroid materials. And once we can do that, we’ll have the resources in space to build anything we can dream of – in space. (Orbital factories, solar collectors, huge nuclear rockets, orbital colonies, interstellar missions…)

        Mining ice can lead the way, and provide the start up money, for everything that follows.

        (I don’t even want to hear whispering about landing humans on Mars until after we can build those landers in orbit.)

  3. Bo Zo says:

    Yay, asteroid missions!
    Much more interesting and important imho than Mars, or anything else we could be doing in space.
    Idk (yet) how valuable the actual sample will be; we get asteroid samples for free every day. (An uncontaminated sample might be informative? Idk.)
    But I think it’s valuable and important to learn to rendezvous & interact with them. And it might turn out to be the most important thing ever attempted in the whole history of the world, if we ever need to deflect one.

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