NASA’s Outbound OSIRIS-Rex Asteroid Sampler Snaps ‘First-Light’ Images

On Sept. 19, 2016 the OCAMS MapCam camera recorded a star field in Taurus, north of the constellation Orion as part of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s post-launch instrument check. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
On Sept. 19, 2016 the OCAMS MapCam camera recorded a star field in Taurus, north of the constellation Orion as part of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s post-launch instrument check. Credits: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA’s newest planetary probe, the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft, is merrily snapping its ‘First-Light’ images following the successful power up and health check of all of the probes science instruments, barely three weeks after a stunning sunset launch from the Florida Space Coast – as it is outbound to asteroid Bennu.

“The spacecraft has passed its initial instrument check with flying colors as it speeds toward a 2018 rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu,” NASA officials reported in a mission update.

All five of the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft science instruments and one of its navigational instruments were powered on, starting last week on September 19.

NASA says they are all fully healthy for the groundbreaking mission whose purpose is to visit the carbon rich asteroid Bennu, snatch samples from the black as coal surface and return them to Earth in 2023 inside a Sample Return Capsule that will soft land by parachute in the Utah desert.

The seven year roundtrip mission to Bennu and back could potentially bring back samples infused with the organic chemicals like amino acids that are the building blocks of life as we know it.

“The data received from the checkout indicate that the spacecraft and its instruments are all healthy.”

The ‘First-Light’ image shown above was taken on Sept. 19, 2016 by the probes OCAMS MapCam camera and recorded a star field in Taurus, north of the constellation Orion along with Orion’s bright red star Betelgeuse.

“MapCam’s first color image is a composite of three of its four color filters, roughly corresponding to blue, green, and red wavelengths. The three images are processed to remove noise, co-registered, and enhanced to emphasize dimmer stars,” researchers said.

The OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS) was the first of the five science instrument to be tested and checlked out perfectly with “no issues.” It was provided by the University of Arizona and is comprised of three cameras which will image and map Bennu in high resolution.

View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.  Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

All the other instruments were also powered on and checked out flawlessly – including the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) which fired its laser, the OSIRIS-REx Visible and Infrared Spectrometer (OVIRS), the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emissions Spectrometer (OTES), and the student designed Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrometer (REXIS).

Lastly, the Touch and Go Camera System (TAGCAMS) navigational camera was successfully powered on and tested.

Furthermore, TAGCAMS took a dramatic image of the spacecraft’s Sample Return Capsule (below) – which is designed to bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample of Bennu’s surface soil and rocks back to Earth in 2023 for study by scientists using the world’s most advanced research instruments.

Image of OSIRIS-Rex Sample Return Capsule taken by StowCam instrument on Sept. 22, 2016, two weeks after launch, during initial science instrument checkout at a distance of 3.9 million miles (6.17 million km) away from Earth.  Credit: NASA
Image of OSIRIS-Rex Sample Return Capsule taken by StowCam instrument on Sept. 22, 2016, two weeks after launch, during initial science instrument checkout at a distance of 3.9 million miles (6.17 million km) away from Earth. Credit: NASA

The capsule image was captured by the StowCam portion of TAGCAMS when it was 3.9 million miles (6.17 million km) away from Earth and traveling at a speed of 19 miles per second (30 km/s) around the Sun.

The StowCam image of the Sample Return Capsule shows it “is in perfect condition,” according to the science team.

Overhead view of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft with small white colored sample return canister atop,  inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Launch is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Overhead view of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft with small white colored sample return canister atop, inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Launch is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Julian Leek

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft departed Earth with an on time engine ignition of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket under crystal clear skies on Thursday, September 8 at 7:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The ULA Atlas V injected OSIRIS-Rex perfectly onto its desired trajectory.

“We got everything just exactly perfect,” said Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, at the post launch briefing at the Kennedy Space Center. “We hit all our milestone within seconds of predicts.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study.  Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016 in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter.  Note the newly install crew access arm and white room for astronaut flights atop Atlas starting in early 2018.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016 in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter. Note the newly install crew access arm and white room for astronaut flights atop Atlas starting in early 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The space rock measures about the size of a small mountain at about a third of a mile in diameter.

“The primary objective of the OSIRIS-Rex mission is to bring back pristine material from the surface of the carbonaceous asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta told Universe Today in a prelaunch interview in the KSC cleanroom with the spacecraft as the probe was undergoing final preparations for shipment to the launch pad.

“We are interested in that material because it is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation.”

“It records the very first material that formed from the earliest stages of solar system formation. And we are really interested in the evolution of carbon during that phase. Particularly the key prebiotic molecules like amino acids, nucleic acids, phosphates and sugars that build up. These are basically the biomolecules for all of life.”

The asteroid is 1,614-foot (500 m) in diameter and crosses Earth’s orbit around the sun every six years.

After a two year flight through space, including an Earth swing by for a gravity assisted speed boost in 2017, OSIRIS-REx will reach Bennu in Fall 2018 to begin about 2 years of study in orbit to determine the physical and chemical properties of the asteroid in extremely high resolution.

Watch my up close launch video captured directly at the pad with the sights and sounds of the fury of blastoff:

Video Caption: ULA Atlas V rocket lifts off on September 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft, in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing OSIRIS-REx mission reporting. He reported on the spacecraft and launch from on site at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.

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

Ken Kremer

First Images in a New Hunt for Dark Energy

Zoomed-in image from the Dark Energy Camera of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365, about 60 million light-years from Earth. (Dark Energy Survey Collaboration)

The ongoing search for dark energy now has a new set of eyes: the Dark Energy Camera, mounted on the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco telescope at the National Science Foundation’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. The culmination of eight years of planning and engineering, the phone-booth-sized 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera has now gathered its very first images, capturing light from cosmic structures tens of millions of light-years away.

Eventually the program’s survey will help astronomers uncover the secrets of dark energy — the enigmatic force suspected to be behind the ongoing and curiously accelerating expansion of the Universe.

Zoomed-in image from the Dark Energy Camera of the Fornax cluster

“The Dark Energy Survey will help us understand why the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing due to gravity,” said Brenna Flaugher, project manager and scientist at Fermilab.

Read more: Polar Telescope Casts New Light on Dark Energy

The most powerful instrument of its kind, the Dark Energy Camera will be used to create highly-detailed color images of  a full 1/8th of the night sky — about 5,000 square degrees — surveying thousands of supernovae, galactic clusters and literally hundreds of millions of galaxies, peering as far away as 8 billion light-years.

The survey will attempt to measure the effects of dark energy on large-scale cosmic structures, as well as identify its gravitational lensing effects on light from distant galaxies. The images seen here, acquired on September 12, 2012, are just the beginning… the Dark Energy Survey is expected to begin actual scientific investigations this December.

Full Dark Energy Camera composite image of the Small Magellanic Cloud

“The achievement of first light through the Dark Energy Camera begins a significant new era in our exploration of the cosmic frontier,” said James Siegrist, associate director of science for high energy physics with the U.S. Department of Energy. “The results of this survey will bring us closer to understanding the mystery of dark energy, and what it means for the universe.”

Read more on the Symmetry Magazine article here, and you can also follow the Dark Energy Survey on Facebook here. (The Fermilab press release can be found here.)

Images: Dark Energy Survey Collaboration. Inset image: the 4-meter Blanco Telescope dome at CTIO (NOAO)

The Dark Energy Survey is supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy; the National Science Foundation; funding agencies in the United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil, Germany and Switzerland; and the participating DES institutions.