Teams Behind OSIRIS-REx Win Prestigious Aviation Award

Sample return capsule

By Mikayla Mace Kelley, University Communications - March 26, 2024

The University of Arizona, NASA and Lockheed Martin have won the Robert J. Collier Trophy for their work on the OSIRIS-REx mission that returned a sample of the asteroid Bennu last fall. 

The National Aeronautic Association, which gives the award every year, made the announcement Tuesday. The Collier Trophy, awarded since 1911, is one of the most prestigious honors in aviation, recognizing the "performance, efficiency and safety of air or space vehicles."

In earning the trophy, the OSIRIS-REx team joins ranks that include the team behind the James Webb Space Telescope and the crew of NASA's Apollo 11 mission, as well as legendary aviators such as Orville Wright and Chuck Yeager. The list of Collier recipients represents a timeline of the most groundbreaking aviation achievements that created today's aerospace industry. 

"It's an awesome crowd to be affiliated with," said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator and a Regents Professor of planetary sciences at the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. "It hammers home the magnitude of the accomplishment. I always understood we were doing something important, but it shows the recognition the country and world is bestowing upon us." 

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft delivered 4.29 ounces, or 121.6 grams, of rocks and dust from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu on Sept. 24. The delivery, shot back to Earth in a capsule to scientists waiting in the Utah desert, was a first in U.S. history, and the largest sample returned since the Apollo missions. 

The sample delivery went according to plan thanks to the massive effort of hundreds of people who remotely directed the spacecraft's seven-year journey to Bennu and back, starting with launch on Sept. 8, 2016. The team guided it to arrival at Bennu on Dec. 3, 2018, followed by the search for a safe sample-collection site in 2019 and 2020, sample collection on Oct. 20, 2020, and the return trip home starting on May 10, 2021. During the asteroid encounter, the team set new Guinness World Records for smallest object orbited and closest orbit achieved by a spacecraft. 

Initial studies of the Bennu sample in October showed evidence of water-bearing minerals and high carbon content, indicating the building blocks of life might be found in the rock. A sample of the asteroid is available for the public to see at the UArizona's Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum. 

"I have been avidly following the progress of OSIRIS-REx ever since I came to the University of Arizona, and it was such an incredible moment to witness the delivery of the asteroid sample," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "I am proud to see the outstanding achievements of the OSIRIS-REx team recognized with the Robert J. Collier Trophy. 

The work this team has done to advance the knowledge of our solar system and its origin is awe-inspiring, and the Collier Trophy is richly deserved." "The award really focuses on accomplishments within the last year," Lauretta said. "The entry, descent, and landing of the sample return capsule in the fall allowed the Air Force to test and calibrate sensors for other incoming hazards." 

The mission also provided unprecedented insight into potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids like Bennu through the science team's characterization of the Yarkovsky effect, a small amount of thrust generated by heat from the sun being radiated off an asteroid's surface. The team also developed a natural feature tracking system, which is onboard software for targeting the sample site and hazard avoidance during sample collection. As a result, OSIRIS-REx became the first mission to fly image-based guidance in deep space. 

UArizona-led science and operations teams supported the spacecraft navigators at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, KinetX and Lockheed Martin in achieving these successes. 

Ultimately, the mission wrapped on time and exceeded the mission sample requirement laid out by NASA, Lauretta said.

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