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UA gets $1.2M to aid in asteroid mission

Fly to an asteroid, pick up about 5 ounces of surface materials and return safely to Earth.

What could be simpler?

The University of Arizona on Monday was awarded $1.2 million from NASA to further develop the $415 million OSIRIS space mission with that goal in mind.

“This has never been done before,” said UA Regents Professor Michael Drake, the principal investigator for the proposed mission. The Japanese tried something similar, but a software problem doomed the mission.

Discovering the nature of materials on the asteroid named RQ36 could tell scientists a lot about the origins of life on Earth, Drake said. The asteroid, about 634 yards in diameter, was selected because scientists believe it contains organic materials, “the type of thing that might have seeded life on Earth after the Earth was formed and went through its molten stage.

“Toward the end of the formation of the planet, as with all the rocky planets, you basically have Earth being hit with objects the size of Mars,” Drake said. “That’s pretty energetic. It’s enough to melt and vaporize the outer part, and possibly the whole planet, depending on how the impacts occurred.”

That would have destroyed any organic material present prior to that time, he explained. So the question is: How did complicated organics get here?

There are two theories, Drake said:

● “The organics were delivered to Earth after the planet cooled enough for liquid water to make oceans and somehow became self-organized.”

● Simple carbon atoms and clays already on Earth somehow became self-organizing and self-replicating.

“This is all very highly speculative, but the more promising, the first of the two, is the one we are looking at, but that doesn’t mean it’s right,” he said. “That’s why we are looking for pristine asteroidal material. What we have been getting in meteorites has been degraded by interaction with the terrestrial atmosphere and biosphere.”

So how does one get a sample of an asteroid?

“We are not going to land on the asteroid,” Drake said. “We are actually going to hit the surface with a pogo stick, which on the bottom has a vacuum running in reverse.”

“We actually call this a ‘muucav,’ which is vacuum spelled backwards,” he said. “The pogo stick, which is attached to the spacecraft, blows materials up into something that looks much like a car air filter.”

The spacecraft will maneuver with rockets, he said. Gravity on the asteroid is so slight, “you can’t orbit the asteroid . . . and if you or I were to leap from the asteroid, we would leave the asteroid forever.”

The spacecraft will approach the asteroid, observing and photographing it. Then, their orbits will diverge and they’ll rejoin in 300 days.

That’s when the pogo stick comes in. When it gets its stuff, it comes back to Earth.

“When you go out to the asteroids, you have to essentially ride with the asteroid all the way around the sun until the orbits of Earth and the asteroid line up again,” Drake said.

Besides the science aspect, “this is enormous to the UA,” Drake said. It brings jobs, prestige and “enormous opportunities for students to get involved,” he said. “Most people don’t realize that undergraduates get to work on these missions, and they usually get paid for it.”

OSIRIS may launch in about five years.


OSIRIS is both a mythological figure and an acronym. “O” is for “origin.” “SI” stands for spectral interpretation. “RI” is for resource identification. And “S” is for security – learning how to predict the detailed motion of Earth-approaching asteroids.



For more information on the OSIRIS mission, go to http://discovery.nasa.gov.

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