Cameras To Help NASA Learn About The Origin Of Earth Were Made In Utah

May 1, 2020

Artists rendition of the OSIRIS REx spacecraft with the sample collection arm extended
Credit NASA

Utah’s own Space Dynamics Laboratory is working with NASA to find clues that could give more insight into the big questions about where we come from.

“So this particular mission was really about some of the origins of life in our solar system, or here on earth," said Robert Burt, the engineering division director at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in North Logan.

The spacecraft OSIRIS REx will orbit an asteroid named Bennu to collect a sample of regolith. Regolith is essentially the inorganic part of soil, the rocks and dust. The organic portion of soil is made up of decaying plants and animals. 

“Probably the most famous thing that most of us would recognize is regolith, is you've seen that footprint that Neil Armstrong made when he stepped on the moon," Burt said.

The sample of regolith that OSIRIS REx will take from the asteroid has been preserved in space, similar to its state when the earth was formed. The Space Dynamics Laboratory designed components of three cameras that are essential to the spacecraft’s mission of collecting a regolith sample.

“So here at SDL we were responsible for the detector assembly or the detector readout assemblies. effectively the same type of detectors in a regular standard digital camera," Burt said. “So there were three cameras. The poly-camera has the high-zoom long range. They used that early on for some of the guidance and and being able to identify the asteroid from a long distance shortly after they were launched. The mat-cam was used, has been used and is still being used to help map the surface of the asteroid once they're there. They've been orbiting it now for the last year and a half or so. And then finally the sam-cam is being used to actually look at that sample arm as it reaches out and, and grabs the sample off the asteroid.”

OSIRIS Rex made a practice approach of the asteroid recently, and will collect the sample of regolith later this year, after one more practice run. The craft is scheduled to return to orbit earth in September 2023. It will release a capsule containing the regolith, which will fall to earth and touch down in the West Desert of Utah.