Space Scientists From Utah Instrumental In Capturing Asteroid Images

Dec 4, 2018

Illustration showing the arrival of NASA's OSIRIS-REx to the asteroid Bennu. USU's SDL provided the detector assemblies for the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite.
Credit Lockheed Martin

After a two-year chase, a NASA spacecraft arrived Monday at the ancient asteroid Bennu, becoming its first visitor in billions of years. A group of Utah scientists at the Space Dynamics Lab in Logan are monitoring the mission.

Jed Hancock and his team watched from their Logan lab Monday as the robotic explorer Osiris-Rex pulled within 12 miles (19 kilometers) of the diamond-shaped space rock.

"Oh, it is very fun to finally have arrived at the asteroid," Hancock said.

Dr. Hancock is executive director for Programs & Operations and Program Manager for OSIRIS-REx. About the size of an SUV, the spacecraft will shadow the asteroid for a year before scooping up some gravel for a return to Earth in 2023, landing in the Utah desert.

Scientists are eager to study material from a carbon-rich asteroid like dark Bennu, which could hold evidence dating back to the beginning of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago, becoming an astronomical time capsule.

"Benefitting our scientific understanding of how the solar system was formed and what the building blocks of life are and we will understand more about how they orbit, and so we will be able to better predict the orbit of other asteroids," he said.  "The minerals and chemicals that are on this asteroid existed during the solar system's formation."

Scientists at Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory built the three-camera suite for the Osiris-REx. The PolyCam captured images of the asteroid and assisted with spacecraft maneuvers as the spacecraft approached the asteroid. MapCam is searching for satellites and outgassing plumes and will map the entire asteroid.  High-resolution images of the sample site will also be captured.

"Seeing the images that our cameras have taken is really rewarding," Hancock said.

Finally, the SamCam will photograph and document the collection of debris from the surface of Bennu.

The collection will represent the biggest cosmic haul since the Apollo astronauts’ hand-delivered moon rocks to Earth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.