SIERRA VISTA — It’s better than a movie script.
After orbiting the sun next year, OSIRIS-REx will soar into space using the gravitational field of Earth to catch up with an ancient asteroid, Bennu.
Once it gets close to this speeding rock, it will eventually bounce off the surface, collect a sample and return home to the friendly environs of Utah's West Desert.
For the next six years, this mission will capture the attention of southern Arizona and the nation, accomplishing a first in the amazing history of the National Aeronautics Space Administration. Located at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the OSIRIS-REx Science Processing and Operations Center is the heartbeat of a mission that began Sept. 8 with a launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Cochise County’s connection is Ted Forte, a Sierra Vista resident who serves as a NASA solar system ambassador, and reports the progress and milestones of the mission.
Forte, a veteran member of the Huachuca Astronomy Club, said collecting a sample from the asteroid Bennu is expected to provide researchers with a glimpse into the origins of the celestial bodies that orbit the sun.
“(Bennu) is very primitive and is presumed to be made of primordial material unchanged since the formation of our solar system,” Forte said last week in an e-mail.
It’s expected OSIRIS-REx will enter orbit around Bennu sometime in August 2018.
“After studying the asteroid to select the perfect sample site, it will retrieve a sample of the surface material (regolith) in July 2020,” he said.
At a meeting earlier this year, HAC members had an opportunity to see a replica of the mechanism that will “vacuum” material from Bennu’s surface while the asteroid speeds through the solar system at 716 miles an hour.
“The Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) consists of a robotic arm with an attached sampler head,” Forte said. “OSIRIS-REx will obtain at least 60 grams (2.1 ounces) and up to 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of the sample.”
From that surface collection NASA researchers hope to gather enough insight to determine whether life on Earth began after an asteroid impact.
“We will be looking for organics and water in the returned sample,” Forte said. “Did asteroids like Bennu first bring the chemistry of life to Earth? OSIRIS-REx hopes to answer that question.”
Scientists will also be investigating what happens to Bennu when it orbits the sun.
“We will also be studying the Yarkovsky effect — the mechanism by which an asteroid’s orbit is changed by the sun heating the surface and then having the asteroid radiate that heat back into space as it rotates,” Forte said.
Understanding the precise effect the sun has on the path and speed of an asteroid will help NASA’s ability to deflect these objects if their path crosses Earth.
“Bennu, by the way, is a potentially hazardous asteroid that has a nonzero chance of impacting the Earth in the 22nd century,” Forte said.
OSIRIS-REx, which can attribute part of its name to the Egyptian god Osiris, is one of a number of missions that Forte speaks about in his role as a NASA solar system ambassador.
“I am also involved in relaying news and information about other NASA missions such as my very favorite mission: New Horizons that flew by Pluto in July 2015 and is now on its way to examine another Kuiper Belt object called 2014MU,” Forte said.
He speaks regularly to civic clubs and school groups, at no charge, about OSIRIS-REx and other NASA missions.
“Often, I can arrange to hold the event at Patterson or I can come to the organization’s facility or meeting location. I’m always available to visit schools,” Forte said.
Patterson Observatory is located on the University of Arizona South Campus in Sierra Vista, close to Cochise College. Monthly meetings of the HAC are often held at the facility, which boasts a large reflector telescope.
“I am both a NASA solar system ambassador, which is an all-encompassing generic outreach and information initiative that is managed out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and an OSIRIS-REx mission ambassador which is run out of the Lunar and Planetary Lab in Tucson,” Forte said.
NASA trains its ambassadors through a program of ongoing conferences over the Internet or by phone.
“We typically get to interact with mission scientists and/or the principal investigators of current missions so that we can stay as informed and current as possible,” Forte said.
For more information on OSIRIS-REx visit http://www.asteroidmission.org.