Countdown Starts for UA-led Asteroid Mission
With OSIRIS-REx, the first spacecraft destined to return a sample from a primitive asteroid, still taking shape, the mission's University of Arizona-led team started the official countdown clock on Monday at 5:43 p.m. MST. At that exact moment, 999 days remained until the opening of the mission's launch window on Sept. 3, 2016. The start of the clock also marks the launch of a new outreach and social media campaign to share the excitement about the mission, which comes with largest grant the UA has ever been awarded. The OSIRIS-REx mission is budgeted for more than $800 million, plus the launch rocket, which is supplied by NASA.
"This is a pioneering effort, both technologically and scientifically," said Dante Lauretta, the mission's principal investigator and a UA professor of planetary science. Starting the countdown clock carries a lot of symbolism for us. We now have a constant reminder when we come to work in the morning of the time remaining to send OSIRIS-REx on its quest to return a sample of asteroid Bennu."
Mike Donnelly, OSIRIS-REx project manager at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center, said, "Nine hundred and ninety-nine days seems a long time to get the spacecraft on the pad, but we know that time will pass quickly. There is lots of work to do before our spacecraft begins its journey, and we have to be very disciplined to get everything done in time."
The world will be able to follow along on the team website. Daily updates about the mission - and interesting information about asteroid science - will be posted on Facebook; Twitter followers will get a special treat as the spacecraft itself will begin tweeting about its progress as it is comes together at the Lockheed Martin facility in Littleton, Colo.
OSIRIS-REx is scheduled to rendezvous with Bennu in 2018. Bennu is a primitive, carbonaceous asteroid that might pose a collision hazard to Earth at some point in the very distant future. OSIRIS-REx will swoop down onto the asteroid's surface, collect a sample and return it to Earth in 2023. The OSIRIS-REx mission promises to help scientists address some 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.
"Osiris, the Egyptian god for which the project is named, was formed from pieces scattered across ancient Egypt, where he awoke as the bringer of life and ruler of the underworld," Lauretta said. "Our spacecraft has a similar story - it will consist of components fabricated in locations around the world that, once together, will allow us to connect with the outer reaches of our solar system."