OSIRIS-REx: Canada’s crucial contribution to the NASA asteroid mission


[A view of the rocket that will carry the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft bound for the Bennu asteroid. NASA]

The OSIRIS-REx asteroid mission that NASA launches Thursday evening contains a Canadian instrument, marking the first time the country has participated in an asteroid journey.

Taking two years to reach the Bennu asteroid, the spacecraft has the delicate task of collecting at least 60 grams of material from the 500-metre diameter asteroid. It will only have three chances before it takes a two-and-a-half year trek back to Earth.

Before OSIRIS-REx even lands on the asteroid, it will have to carefully scan the surface for a proper landing area to get the right sample. That’s where Canada comes in.

“Launches are always really cool,” said Michael Daly, the lead scientist from Toronto’s York University who developed the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA). Daly spoke to Yahoo Canada News from Florida, just before he was about to get into a waiting vehicle along with his university and Canadian Space Agency colleagues and the Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, to watch the launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

“It’s climactic because it’s the culmination of [eight years of work] but it’s also anti-climactic because it means we have to get back to work and do some preparation.”

OLA is a key instrument that will be used to map the asteroid and figure out where is the best place to gather samples as well.

Daly, the research chair in planetary science at York University, says his team will have to turn on OLA periodically and make sure it’s working as it jets towards Bennu.

“We have to test it and see how it communicates with the spacecraft in space and how it behaves.”

OLA is unique in the sense that it can do 10,000 measurements per second, much more than previous instruments of its kind. It uses two lasers, one is high-energy and one is low-energy. So by timing the gap between when a laser pulse is emitted and when it bounces back, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft can calculate the distance between itself and the asteroid.

In addition, its lasers will be helping to create a high-resolution 3-D map of Bennu.

“Asteroids are very different to analyze because they are smaller [than planets] and so the spacecraft is moving extremely slowly, about 10 centimetres per second versus several kilometres per second in other missions,” explained Daly.

“OLA is very accurate and can pinpoint its measurements at that speed.”

‘Gift that keeps on giving’

Bennu is important for two reasons: it is classified as a “Potentially Hazardous Asteroid” which could hit Earth between 2175 and 2199. Information brought back by the mission will help scientists understand the asteroid’s future path.

Also, Bennu is a rare carbon-laden remnant of the early solar system, which may provide those vital clues about the origins of life on Earth.

Once OSIRIS-REx is able to gather the sample from Bennu, Daly says he and his colleagues will also be involved in examining what it gathers.

“I was also on the Phoenix Mars Mission and when we first saw the first samples — things no one had ever seen before — it was so surprising. These missions are always surprising … we never know what we’re going to get.”

That sample will be a boon for researchers for years to come: “It will be the gift that keeps on giving,” Daly noted.

In the end what excites Daly even more is to share this with Canadians — particularly children.

“These young people have a chance to pursue things like this in science and engineering,” expanded the Ottawa-raised engineer.

“When we bring back a sample in 2023, individuals going through pubic schools now will be able to make careers studying the sample that comes back.”