Wow, started the day by visiting the place they stow the moon rocks! I was extraordinarily fortunate to have a tour of the Lunar and Planetary Lab this morning with mission scientist and specialist Bashar Rizk. The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory has been involved in almost every interplanetary spacecraft sent. They also have the most impressive collection of meteors ever — including the famous moon rocks. The current hot project is Osiris Rex — a space ship being sent out to ride alongside a meteor, then gently touch it, to obtain surface samples, then retreat and return to earth so these samples can help scientists make sense of the history of the universe. The ship is already down at the Cape Kennedy Space Centre, being readied for its launch in September. The science team includes members from the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy. The mission was developed by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Lockheed Martin Space Systems.
After traveling for approximately two years, the spacecraft is to rendezvous with asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2018 and begin surface mapping. Results of that mapping will be used by the mission team to select the site from which to take a sample of the asteroid’s surface. Then a close approach (without landing) will be attempted to allow extension of a robotic arm to gather the sample. Then it returns to earth with the samples.
An asteroid was chosen as the target of study because an asteroid is a ‘time capsule’ from the birth of our Solar System. In particular, 101955 Bennu was selected because of the availability of pristine carbonaceous material, a key element in organic molecules necessary for life as well as representative of matter from before the formation of Earth. Organic molecules, such as amino acids, have previously been found in meteorite and comet samples, indicating that some ingredients necessary for life can be naturally synthesized in outer space. This mission will reveal so much about the history of the asteroid, the probabilities in terms of danger to our planet from asteroids and the possibilities of life out in space.
It was a slight diversion from my focus on the Large Binocular Telescope but if it wasn’t for ground-based astronomy findings, there wouldn’t be an Osiris Rex. In the last 40 years of gaining information about asteroids, we’ve gone from knowing about a handful to identifying over 700, 000 in the near universe! All this knowledge was gleaned through ground-based observations at telescopes.