What’s in a Name? New Mission, Age-old Questions

This artist's concept shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft contacting the asteroid Bennu.Spelled out in full, the name of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft hints at the many goals scientists envision for this mission: to map asteroid Bennu using 3-D laser imaging, retrieve samples from its surface and return those samples to Earth.

“The mission name is an awesome acronym that describes our primary science objectives,” said Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator.

Let’s take a closer look:

  • Origins – Return an asteroid sample for laboratory analysis. “This really is what drives our program. We’re going to asteroid Bennu because it’s a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation, back when our planetary system was spread across as dust grains in a swirling cloud around our growing protostar.”
  • Spectral Interpretation – Provide direct observations for telescopic data of the entire asteroid population.
  • Resource Identification – Map the chemistry and mineralogy of a primitive, carbon-rich asteroid.
  • Security – Measure the Yarkovsky effect, in which the asteroid absorbs the energy in sunlight, then emits that energy in the form of heat. “That causes a small thrust on the asteroid, changing its trajectory over time,” Lauretta explained Tuesday. A better understanding of this phenomenon could not only help scientists know more about Bennu, but could be applied to asteroids throughout our solar system.
  • Regolith Explorer – Document the loose blanket of gravel and dirt on the surface, known as regolith.

Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. See it in high resolution at https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/osiris-rex-grabs-a-sample