Construction of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft – which will launch next year on a mission to return an asteroid sample to Earth – has been completed. It has now moved into the environmental test phase, where it will be subjected to a number of trials that simulate the rigors of spaceflight, ahead of its journey to the potentially hazardous asteroid Bennu beginning next year.
“This milestone marks the end of the design and assembly stage,” said Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson in a statement. “We now move on to test the entire flight system over the range of environmental conditions that will be experienced on the journey to Bennu and back. This phase is critical to mission success, and I am confident that we have built the right system for the job.”
OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer), built by Lockheed Martin, will launch in September 2016 on an Atlas V rocket and arrive at Bennu in 2018. There, using a robotic arm and bursts of nitrogen gas, it will collect a sample of between 60 grams and 2 kilograms (0.13 and 4.4 pounds), the biggest ever for a robotic mission. The sample will be returned to Earth in 2023 – the largest sample returned to Earth since the Apollo missions – and will be studied by scientists to learn more about the early Solar System.
Testing of the spacecraft will take place over the next five months at a Lockheed Martin testing facility in Denver, hopefully giving the team enough time to address any issues if they arise. The simulations will also see how the spacecraft copes with the extremely hot and cold temperatures it will experience on its way to Bennu. The asteroid has a slightly elliptical orbit that takes it from 0.897 to 1.356 AU (1 AU, astronomical unit, is the distance from the Earth to the Sun).
As the asteroid is believed to be a remnant of the early Solar System, it’s hoped that it could hold clues as to how water and organic molecules came to Earth. What the mission learns could also be useful in future endeavors to deflect an Earth-bound asteroid, if we needed to. Bennu itself has just a 0.04% chance of hitting Earth, so there's no need to panic just yet.