NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Now in Environmental Testing

11/03/2015 - 22:13

Kayla Matthews | @productibytes

Space exploration can be a goal that’s years in the making. NASA experts know that reality well. As technology has evolved, there have been more ways for robots in space to collect data and send it back to Earth. That’s the general concept behind a mission called OSIRIS-REx, or the much longer mouthful of “Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer.”

It’s not set to launch until next fall, but scientists have recently achieved a major mission milestone: The spacecraft is fully assembled and has started an intensive testing phase to ensure it is strong enough for the mission.

What’s Ahead for the OSIRIS-REx?

If the mission is successful, it will be the first instance where United States’ space researchers have depended on a robotic arm to snatch samples from the surface of an asteroid. As you might expect, it will not be a quick mission. In fact, it should last eight years.

Everything kicks off on September 3rd, when a 39-day launch window opens. The OSIRIS-REx will travel for three years before arriving within three miles of an asteroid called 1999 RQ36, or Bennu — a 1,600-foot-diameter asteroid. Once it’s close enough, the craft will begin mapping the surface of the asteroid. A team of scientists will specify the desired area of the asteroid from which they want to take samples.

The goal is to collect at least 60 grams that are bound for Earth. This mission is estimated to cost $1 billion. Despite what may seem like a large price tag, scientists are excited about what may be revealed through the mission and associated samples. Specifically, they don't expect the asteroid to be largely altered by the passage of time. They’re confident it could give details about how life began on Earth. Additionally, researchers suspect the asteroid will be rich in carbon, which may give clues about organic molecules in space.

A Tight Timeframe

Scientists have assured media sources they entered the testing phase right on schedule. The best testing outcomes and little or no delays mean that the OSIRIS-REx will launch in either September or October of next year.

If that doesn’t happen, the mission will be paused for 18 months as the asteroid will come so close to Earth that the flight path of the OSIRIS-REx would be disrupted if it doesn’t depart on schedule.

OSIRIS-REx May Grab Data That Helps Protect the Earth

There’s been no lack of storylines about asteroids that have either collided with Earth or nearly missed it. Scientists are speculating the information collected by the OSIRIS-REx may one day be valuable in another regard. It could potentially act as a pathfinder to aid future spacecraft in guiding asteroids away from the Earth before they make contact.

Mimicking Real Life Rigors

The testing phase will last for five months and it’s being carried out by professionals who genuinely understand why environmental testing is essential. The craft will be subjected to simulations associated with the characteristics of the destination, such as vacuum space, extreme temperatures and vibration. Scientists will endeavor to recreate possible scenarios as accurately as possible to increase the chances of a successful mission.

The experts know it's not only about ensuring the spacecraft is fit for flying. It’s also important that it can handle the mission as intended. The team from Lockheed Martin's branch in Denver, Colorado that was responsible for assembling the spacecraft are also tasked with testing it.

The testers are reportedly hoping to uncover any problems well before the craft prepares for liftoff. If they're able to do so, the likelihood of a successful overall mission will increase. As for the rest of us, we'll wait anxiously for good outcomes too, inspired by how space exploration continues to advance and offer us important clues about the Earth’s beginnings.