Hitch a Ride on the Next Mission to an Asteroid

NASA and the Planetary Society are teaming up to give everyone the opportunity tag along on the next mission to an asteroid … well, your name can go along on the trip, anyway! You can submit your name to be added on to a microchip that will be aboard the Origins-Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft, which will launch to the asteroid Bennu in 2016 and arrive in 2018.

“We’re thrilled to be able to share the OSIRIS-REx adventure with people across the Earth, to Bennu and back,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission from the University of Arizona in Tucson. “It’s a great opportunity for people to get engaged with the mission early and join us as we prepare for launch.”

The spacecraft will spend more than two years at the 1,760-foot (500-meter)-wide asteroid. The spacecraft will collect a sample of Bennu’s surface and return it to Earth in 2023 in a sample return capsule.

The “Messages to Bennu!” microchip will travel to the asteroid on the spacecraft, and once the sample return capsule deploys, the spacecraft will be placed into a long-term solar orbit around the Sun, along with the microchip and every name on it.

You can submit your name at this website. The deadline is September 30, 2014.

After you submit your name, you can download and print a certificate.

“You’ll be part of humankind’s exploration of the solar system — How cool is that?” said Bill Nye, chief executive officer of The Planetary Society.

Participants who “follow” or “like” the mission on Facebook will receive updates on the location of their name in space from launch time until the asteroid samples return to Earth. Facebook fans also will be kept apprised of mission progress and late-breaking news through regular status updates.

The OSIRIS-REx mission goal is to address basic questions about the composition of the very early solar system, the source of organic materials and water that made life possible on Earth, and to better predict the orbits of asteroids that represent collision threats to the Earth. It will collect a minimum of 2 ounces (60 grams) of surface material.

Find out more about the mission here and here.

European Asteroid Smasher Could Bolster Planetary Defense

Planetary Defense is a concept very few people heard of or took seriously – that is until last week’s humongous and totally unexpected meteor explosion over Russia sent millions of frightened residents ducking for cover, followed just hours later by Earth’s uncomfortably close shave with the 45 meter (150 ft) wide asteroid named 2012 DA14.

This ‘Cosmic Coincidence’ of potentially catastrophic space rocks zooming around Earth is a wakeup call that underscores the need to learn much more about the ever present threat from the vast array of unknown celestial debris in close proximity to Earth and get serious about Planetary Defense from asteroid impacts.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) proposed Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, or AIDA, could significantly bolster both our basic knowledge about asteroids in our neighborhood and perhaps even begin testing Planetary Defense concepts and deflection strategies.

After two years of work, research teams from the US and Europe have selected the mission’s target – a so called ‘binary asteroid’ named Didymos – that AIDA will intercept and smash into at about the time of its closest approach to Earth in 2022 when it is just 11 million kilometers away.

“AIDA is not just an asteroid mission, it is also meant as a research platform open to all different mission users,” says Andres Galvez, ESA studies manager.

Asteroid Didymos could provide a great platform for a wide variety of research endeavors because it’s actually a complex two body system with a moon – and they orbit each other. The larger body is roughly 800 meters across, while the smaller one is about 150 meters wide.

Didymos with its Moon
Didymos with its Moon. Credit: ESA

So the smaller body is some 15 times bigger than the Russian meteor and 3 times the size of Asteroid 2012 DA14 which flew just 27,700 km (17,200 mi) above Earth’s surface on Feb. 15, 2013.

The low cost AIDA mission would be comprised of two spacecraft – a mother ship and a collider. Two ships for two targets.

The US collider is named the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART and would smash into the smaller body at about 6.25 km per second. The impact should change the pace at which the objects spin around each other.

ESA’s mothership is named Asteroid Impact Monitor, or AIM, and would carry out a detailed science survey of Didymos both before and after the violent collision.

“The project has value in many areas,” says Andy Cheng, AIDA lead at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, “from applied science and exploration to asteroid resource utilisation.” Cheng was a key member of NASA’s NEAR mission that first orbited and later landed on the near Earth Asteroid named Eros back in 2001.

Recall that back in 2005, NASA’s Deep Impact mission successfully lobbed a projectile into Comet Tempel 1 that unleashed a fiery explosion and spewing out vast quantities of material from the comet’s interior, including water and organics.

NASA’s Deep Impact images Comet Tempel 1 alive with light after colliding with the impactor spacecraft on July 4, 2005.  ESA and NASA are now proposing the AIDA mission to smash into Asteroid Didymos.  CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD
NASA’s Deep Impact images Comet Tempel 1 alive with light after colliding with the impactor spacecraft on July 4, 2005. ESA and NASA are now proposing the AIDA mission to smash into Asteroid Didymos. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

ESA has invited researchers to submit AIDA experiment proposals on a range of ideas including anything that deals with hypervelocity impacts, planetary science, planetary defense, human exploration or innovation in spacecraft operations. The deadline is 15 March.

“It is an exciting opportunity to do world-leading research of all kinds on a problem that is out of this world,” says Stephan Ulamec from the DLR German Aerospace Center. “And it helps us learn how to work together in international missions tackling the asteroid impact hazard.”

The Russian meteor exploded without warning in mid air with a force of nearly 500 kilotons of TNT, the equivalent of about 20–30 times the atomic bombs detonated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Over 1200 people were injured in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region and some 4000 buildings were damaged at a cost exceeding tens of millions of dollars. A ground impact would have decimated cities like New York, Moscow or Beijing with millions likely killed.

ESA’s AIDA mission concept and NASA’s approved Osiris-REx asteroid sample return mission will begin the path to bolster our basic knowledge about asteroids and hopefully inform us on asteroid deflection and Planetary Defense strategies.

Ken Kremer

Near-Earth asteroid Eros imaged from NASA’s orbiting NEAR spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Near-Earth asteroid Eros imaged from NASA’s orbiting NEAR spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Students: Asteroid 1999 RQ36 Needs a New Name!

NASA and the Planetary Society are giving students worldwide the opportunity to name an asteroid. And it’s not just any asteroid; an upcoming NASA mission will return samples of this asteroid to Earth. The Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) will be heading to an asteroid, currently named (101955) 1999 RQ36. The poor asteroid just needs a name that is a little more exciting and user-friendly – something that is easy to remember!

Scheduled to launch in 2016, the mission could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth. NASA also is planning a crewed mission to an asteroid by 2025. A closer scientific study of asteroids will provide context and help inform this mission.

“Because the samples returned by the mission will be available for study for future generations, it is possible the person who names the asteroid will grow up to study the regolith we return to Earth,” said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The competition is open to students under age 18 from anywhere in the world. Each contestant can submit one name, up to 16 characters long. Entries must include a short explanation and rationale for the name. Submissions must be made by an adult on behalf of the student. The contest deadline is Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012.

See here for contest rules and instructions.

Simulated asteroid image – topography overlaid on radar imagery of 1999 RQ36. Credit: NASA/GSFC/UA

The contest is also sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington; and the University of Arizona in Tucson.

A panel will review proposed asteroid names. First prize will be awarded to the student who recommends a name that is approved by the International Astronomical Union Committee for Small-Body Nomenclature.

“Our mission will be focused on this asteroid for more than a decade,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the mission at the University of Arizona. “We look forward to having a name that is easier to say than (101955) 1999 RQ36.”

The asteroid was discovered in 1999 by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) survey at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. LINEAR is part of NASA’s Near Earth Observation Program, Washington, which detects and catalogs near-Earth asteroids, and comets. The asteroid has an average diameter of approximately 500 meters (1,640 feet).

“We are excited to have discovered the minor planet that will be visited by the OSIRIS-REx mission and to be able to engage students around the world to suggest a name for 1999 RQ36,” said Grant Stokes, head of the Aerospace Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and principal investigator for the LINEAR program.

The asteroid received its designation of (101955) 1999 RQ36 from the Minor Planet Center, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. The center assigns an initial alphanumeric designation to any newly discovered asteroid that once certain criteria are met to determine its orbit.

“Asteroids are just cool and 1999 RQ36 deserves a cool name!” said Bill Nye, chief executive officer for The Planetary Society. “Engaging kids around the world in a naming contest will get them tuned in to asteroids and asteroid science.”

Click here for more info about the OSIRIS-Rex mission

Astronomers Measure Sunlight’s Shove

The physical force of sunlight on a moving asteroid has been measured by NASA scientists, providing information on how to better plot these Earth-passing worlds’ future paths.

First proposed by a 19-century Russian engineer, the Yarkovsky effect is the result of an object in space absorbing radiation from the Sun and emitting it as heat, thus creating a slight-but-measurable change in its movement (thanks to Newton’s first law of motion.)

By observing the 1999, 2005 and 2011 close passes of asteroid 1999 RQ36 with the Arecibo and Goldstone radar telescopes, astronomers were able to determine how much the trajectory of the half-kilometer-wide asteroid had changed.

The researchers’ findings revealed that RQ36 shifted by 160 km – about 100 miles – over the course of those 12 years. That deviation is attributed to the Yarkovsky effect. A miniscule force in and of itself, over time it has the ability to move entire worlds (albeit relatively small ones.)

“The Yarkovsky force on 1999 RQ36 at its peak, when the asteroid is nearest the Sun, is only about a half ounce — about the weight of three grapes on Earth,” said Steven Chesley of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena “Meanwhile, the mass of the asteroid is estimated to be about 68 million tons. You need extremely precise measurements over a fairly long time span to see something so slight acting on something so huge.”

Using measurements of the distance between the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and RQ36 during its latest pass in 2011 – a feat that was compared by team leader Michael Nolan to “measuring the distance between New York City and Los Angeles to an accuracy of two inches” – Chesley and his team were able to calculate all the asteroid’s near-Earth approaches closer than 7.5 million km (4.6 million miles) from the years 1654 to 2135. 11 such passes were found.

In addition, observation of 1999 RQ36 with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope found it to have about the same density as water – that’s light, for an asteroid.

Most likely, RQ36 is a “rubble-pile” form of asteroid, composed of a conglomeration of individual chunks of material held together by gravity.

These findings will be used by NASA scientists to help fine-tune the upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2016 to rendezvous with 1999 RQ36 and return samples to Earth in 2023. Being a loose collection of rocks is expected to aid in the spacecraft’s sample retrieval process.

The findings were presented on May 19 at the Asteroids, Comets and Meteors 2012 meeting in Niigata, Japan. Read more here.

(Top image: series of radar images of asteroid 1999 RQ36 were obtained by NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, Calif. on Sept 23, 1999. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA Wants Your Help in Finding Asteroids


If you are an amateur astronomer who likes a challenge, NASA has a new project and is looking for a little help from their amateur astronomers friends. Called called “Target Asteroids!” the project is part of the upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission to improve basic scientific understanding of Near Earth Objects. NASA is hoping amateur astronomers can help in the mission by discovering new asteroids and studying their characteristics to help better characterize the population of NEOs. NASA says amateur contributions will affect current and future space missions to asteroids.

Amateur astronomers can help determine the position, motion, rotation and changes in the intensity of light asteroids emit. Professional astronomers will use this information to refine theoretical models of asteroids, improving their understanding about asteroids similar to the one OSIRIS-Rex will encounter.

OSIRIS-REx (Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer) is scheduled to launch 2016 and will be a sample return mission from an asteroid, 1999 RQ36. When it meets up with the asteroid in 2019, it will map the asteroid’s global properties, measure non-gravitational forces and provide observations that can be compared with data obtained by telescope observations from Earth. In 2023, OSIRIS-REx will return back to Earth at least 2.11 ounces (60 grams) of surface material from the asteroid.

Target Asteroids! data will be useful for comparisons with actual mission data. The project team plans to expand participants in 2014 to students and teachers.

“Although few amateur astronomers have the capability to observe 1999 RQ36 itself, they do have the capability to observe other targets,” said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Previous observations indicate 1999 RQ36 is made of primitive materials. OSIRIS-REx will supply a wealth of information about the asteroid’s composition and structure. Data also will provide new insights into the nature of the early solar system and its evolution, orbits of NEOs and their impact risks, and the building blocks that led to life on Earth.

Amateur astronomers long have provided NEO tracking observations in support of NASA’s NEO Observation Program. A better understanding of NEOs is a critically important precursor in the selection and targeting of future asteroid missions.

“For well over 10 years, amateurs have been important contributors in the refinement of orbits for newly discovered near-Earth objects,” said Edward Beshore, deputy principal investigator for the OSIRIS-REx mission at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Visit the Target Asteroids! webpage.

NASA Selects OSIRIS-REx as first US Asteroid Sampling Mission


NASA officials announced the selection of OSIRIS-Rex as the next US robotic planetary science mission and which will pave the way for an eventual manned mission to an asteroid. OSIRIS-Rex will be the first US mission to collect and return samples of an asteroid to Earth.

OSIRIS-Rex is planned for launch to the near Earth asteroid designated as 1999 RQ36 in September 2016 and will return up to four pounds of prisitine asteroidal material to Earth in 2023. The precious sample would land arrive at Utah’s Test and Training Range in a sample return canister similar to the one for the Stardust spacecraft.

“We are absolutely delighted to announce the selection of OSIRIS-Rex,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, at a briefing for reporters.

“This asteroid is a time capsule from the birth of our solar system and ushers in a new era of planetary exploration. The knowledge from the mission also will help us to develop methods to better track the orbits of asteroids.”

OSIRIS-Rex is the acronym for Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer.

The asteroid 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.

Asteroid 1999 RQ36 is likely rich in carbon, the key constituent of organic molecules and one of the building blocks of life. Organic molecules have been found in meteorite and comet samples, which indicates that some of life’s ingredients can be created in space.
The science team will determine if organics also are present on RQ36.

Osiris-REx collects pristine asteroid regolith

Asteroids like 1999 RQ36 may have seeded Earth billions of years ago with organic molecules that are the building blocks of life and perhaps eventually led to living organisms. Samples from the asteroids may help scientists unlock the mysteries of the origin of life on Earth.

Three years after launch, OSIRIS-Rex would arrive at Asteroid 1999 RQ36 in 2020 and study the 1900 foot wide space rock in detail for at least six months of comprehensive surface examinations with four science instruments.

The science team will also use the time – perhaps up to one year – to look for the optimal place to touch the surface and collect a sample of at least two ounces of surface material with a robotic arm.

“We are bringing back what we believe is the type of material that led to the building blocks of life, that led to us,” said Michael Drake, principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission from the University of Arizona.

OSIRIS-REx releases a sample canister - similar to Stardust - for re-entry back into Earth's atmosphere and landing by parachute in Utah.
Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
“We’re going for something rich in organics, which might have had something to do with life getting started.”

“OSIRIS-REx will explore our past and help determine our destiny,” said Drake. “It will return samples of pristine organic material that scientists think might have seeded the sterile early Earth with the building blocks that led to life. Such samples do not currently exist on Earth. OSIRIS-REx will also provide the knowledge that will guide humanity in deflecting any future asteroid that could collide with Earth, allowing humanity to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs.”

The small asteroid RQ36 has also attracted interest because there is a 1-in-1,800 chance of impacting the Earth in the year 2182.

Drake added that the team will carefully practice the sample collection before conducting the actual retrieval of a surface material of a mixture of soil and rocks with a pogo stick like device. He said it would be more like “kissing” the surface than a actual landing of the spacecraft.

The sampling device at the end of the robot arm looks like a car air filter. It will haul in the pristine regolith into the sample acquisition mechanism within 5 seconds in a “touch and go” maneuver as the spacecraft slowly descends at 0.1 m/sec. Up to 3 attempts are possible.

Check the sampling sequence video below.

Because the samples are expected to possess organic molecules, they will be subject to stringent planetary protection protocols. The OSIRIS-REx sample capsule will be stored for analysis at a special curation facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. By returning the asteroid samples to Earth, they can be studied by the most advanced science equipment available.

“I think we’ll get some much needed info on the composition and physical properties of asteroid surface material. I’m particularly interested in water content for future resource use. The photos should be spectacular,” said former Astronaut Tom Jones in exclusive comments for Universe Today.

“This is a critical step in meeting the objectives outlined by President Obama to extend our reach beyond low-Earth orbit and explore into deep space,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in a statement. “It’s robotic missions like these that will pave the way for future human space missions to an asteroid and other deep space destinations.”

When the mission is complete, the spacecraft is expected to have sufficient fuel reserves to be retargeted to a new destination according to Michael Drake.

OSIRIS-Rex is expected to cost $800 million according to Jim Green, minus the cost of the launch vehicle which he said has not yet been determined. This is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program following the Pluto-Charon mission and the Juno Jupiter Orbiter.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver is building the spacecraft. Overall mission management will be provided by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.